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The Cambridge Companion to 



The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology presents a comprehensive 
and integrated treatment of ancient Greek mythic tradition. Divided 
into three sections, the work consists of sixteen original articles authored 
by an ensemble of some of the world’s most distinguished scholars of 
classical mythology. Part I provides readers with an examination of the 
forms and uses of myth in Greek oral and written literature from the 
epic poetry of the eighth century BC to the mythographic catalogs 
of the early centuries AD. Part II looks at the relationship between 
myth, religion, art, and politics among the Greeks and at the Roman 
appropriation of Greek mythic tradition. The reception of Greek myth 
from the Middle Ages to modernity, in literature, feminist scholarship, 
and cinema, rounds out the work in Part III. The Cambridge Companion 
to Greek Mythology is a unique resource that will be of interest and 
value not only to undergraduate and graduate students and professional 
scholars, but also to anyone interested in the myths of the ancient Greeks 
and their impact on western tradition. 

Roger D. Woodard is the Andrew V. V. Raymond Professor of the Clas- 
sics and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Buffalo (The State 
University of New York) . He has taught in the United States and Europe 
and is the author of a number of books on myth and ancient civiliza- 
tion, most recently Indo-European Sacred Space: Vedic and Roman Cult. 
Dr. Woodard is editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient 
Languages, which received a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title 
award in 2006. 


Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

The Cambridge Companion to 




Edited by 

Roger D. Woodard 

Andrew V. V. Raymond Professor of the Classics 
Professor of Linguistics 

University of Buffalo (The State University of New York) 




Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 


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no reproduction of any part may take place without 
the written permission of Cambridge University Press. 

First published 2007 

Printed in the United States of America 

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data 

The Cambridge companion to Greek mythology / edited by Roger D. Woodard. 

p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 
isbn 978-0-521-84520-5 (hardback) - isbn 978-0-521-60726-1 (pbk.) 

1. Mythology, Greek. I. Woodard, Roger D. II. Title. 

BL783.C36 2007 

292.i'3-dc22 2007005451 

isbn 978-0-521-84520-5 hardback 
isbn 978-0-521-60726-1 paperback 

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for 
the persistence or accuracy of urls for external or 
third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication 
and does not guarantee that any content on such 
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List of Illustrations page vii 

List of Contributors ix 

Acknowledgments xiii 

List of Abbreviations xv 

Introduction: Muthoi in Continuity and Variation i 


Part i: Sources and Interpretations 15 

1 Lyric and Greek Myth 19 


2 Homer and Greek Myth 52 


3 Hesiod and Greek Myth 83 


4 Tragedy and Greek Myth 166 


5 Myth in Aristophanes 190 


6 Plato Philomythos 210 


7 Hellenistic Mythographers 237 



Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 


Part 2: Response, Integration, 

Representation 255 

8 Greek Myth and Greek Religion 259 


9 Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language 286 


10 Mythic Landscapes of Greece 305 


11 Politics and Greek Myth 331 


12 Ovid and Greek Myth 355 


Part 3: Reception 383 

13 Women and Greek Myth 387 


14 Let Us Make Gods in Our Image: Greek Myth in 

Medieval and Renaissance Literature 407 


15 ‘Hail, Muse! et cetera Greek Myth in English and 

American Literature 425 


16 Greek Myth on the Screen 453 


Bibliography 481 

Index 511 


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Figures follow page 304 

1 A Fox Telling Aesop Fables. Red-figure kylix of the Bologna 
Painter from Vulci. 

2 The Charioteer of the Phaedrus. Andrea Sansovino. 

3 Deeds of Theseus. Attic red-figure cup attributed to the Codrus 
Painter from Vulci. 

4 Tyrannicides. Casts of Roman marble copies after bronze originals 
by Kritios and Nesiotes. 

5 Departure of a Hero. Attic Late Geometric spouted crater from 

6 Death of Priam; Attic black-figure amphora by Lydos from Vulci. 

7 Return of Hephaestus. Attic red-figure skyphos attributed to the 
Curti Painter. 

8 Return of Hephaestus. Attic red-figure volute-crater by Polion 
from Spina. 

9 Heracles and the Nemean Lion. Metope from the Temple of Zeus 
at Olympia. 

10 Birth of Erichthonius. Attic red-figure squat lekythos attributed 
to the Meidias Painter. 

11 Battle of Athena and a Giant. Attic red-figure lekythos attributed 
to Douris. 

12 Naval Fresco from Akrotiri. 

13 Nymphs and Pan. Marble votive relief. 

14 The Blinding of Polyphemus. Fragment from a vase. 

15 Meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa. Lid of a red-figure pyxis 
attributed to Aison. 

16 Abduction of the Leucippides by the Dioscuri and the Garden of 
the Hesperides. Attic red-figure hydria by the Meidias Painter. 

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17 Odysseus’ Descent to the Underworld. Drawing of Attic red- 
figure pelike attributed to the Lykaon Painter. 

18 The Suicide of Ajax. Black-figure amphora by Exekias. 

19 Book 2, Emblem 2, in Frances Quarles, Emblemes. 

20 “Venus,” from The Copenhagen Planet Book. See Filedt Kok (1985) 
for a similar blockbook by the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet. 

21 Clash of the Titans. Zeus and the “Arena of Life.” 

22 Jason and the Argonauts. Hera observing Jason and Medea on the 
Olympian screen. 

23 Jason and the Argonauts. Talos towering above the Argonauts. 

24 Hercules. Our hero at the climax of the film that made him immor- 
tal on the screen. 

25 Hercules Conquers Atlantis. Hercules, descended from his twelve- 
horse chariot, discovers massacre victims at the palace of Atlantis. 
Note the panther reliefs on the wall. 


3.1 Comparison of Indo-Iranian Traditions: Cosmogonic 

and Cosmologic page 132 

3 .2 Comparison of Greek and Indie Traditions 142 

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ANGUS BOWIE is Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford, and the 
Lobel Praelector in Classics. His publications include The Poetic Dialect 
of Sappho and Alcaeus (1981) and Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Com- 
edy (1993). Dr. Bowie also serves as editor of the Journal of Hellenic 

A. J. BOYLE is professor of classics at the University of South- 
ern California. His recent publications include Tragic Seneca (1997), 
Ovid’s Fasti (with R. D. Woodard 2000), Flavian Rome (with W. J. 
Dominik 2003), Ovid and the Monuments (2004), and Roman Tragedy 

Professor SARAH ANNES BROWN is professor of English at Anglia 
Ruskin University, Cambridge. She is the author of The Metamorphosis of 
Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes (1999) and the coeditor (with Charles 
Martindale) of Nicholas Rowe’s translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia (1997). 
She has also published numerous shorter pieces on various aspects of 
classical reception, including articles on its relationship with queer the- 
ory and science fiction. She is currently editing a collection of essays, 
Tragedy in Transition (with Catherine Silverstone) . 

H. DAVID BRUMBLE is professor of English at the University of 
Pittsburgh. Among his scholarly works are Classical Myths and Legends 
in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: A Dictionary of Allegorical Meanings 
(1998) and Street Gangs and Warrior Tribes (forthcoming). 

RICHARD BUXTON is professor of Greek language and literature at the 
University of Bristol. Among the works he has authored are Persuasion 
in Greek Tragedy (1982), Sophocles (1984; reprinted with Addenda 1995), 

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Imaginary Greece: The Contexts of Mythology (1994), and The Complete 
World of Greek Mythology (2004). Professor Buxton is editor of From 
Myth to Reason? (1999) and Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (2000). 
Since 2006, Professor Buxton has been President of the Fondation pour 
le Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. 

CLAUDE CALAME is Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes 
en Sciences Sociales in Paris and Honorary Professor of Greek Language 
and Literature at the University of Lausanne. In English, he has pub- 
lished The Craft of Poetic Speech in Ancient Greece (1995), The Poetics of 
Eros in Ancient Greece (1999), Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece 
(second edition 2001), Myth and History in Ancient Greece (2003), Masks 
of Authority. Fiction and Pragmatics in Ancient Greece (2005), and, on Greek 
mythology, Thesee et 1 ’imaginaire athenien. Legende et adte en Grece clas- 
sique (second edition 1996) and Poetique des mythes dans la Grece antique 

DISKIN CLAY is professor of classical studies at Duke University. His 
interests have focused on the intersection of ancient poetry and phi- 
losophy. He is the author of many studies of the Platonic dialogues, 
Lucretius and Epicurus (1983), Platonic Questions : Dialogues with the Silent 
Philosopher (2000), and Archilochos Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek 
Polis (2004). At present he is working on a study of The Art of Hell: 
Reflections of Dante’s Inferno in the Religious Art of Tuscany from the Early 
Trecento to 1579. 

ADA COHEN is an associate professor of art history at Dartmouth Col- 
lege. She has written essays on various aspects of Greek art, including 
gender and sexuality, myth, and landscape. She is author of The Alexander 
Mosaic: Stories of History and Defeat (1997) and coeditor of and contribu- 
tor to Constructions of Childhood in the Greek and Roman Antiquity (2007). 
She recently completed a book on masculinity and power in late Clas- 
sical and Hellenistic art titled Paradigms of Manhood: Art and Culture in 
the Times of Alexander the Great and is working on a study of feminine 
beauty in ancient Greece. 

JONATHAN M. HALL is the Phyllis Fay Horton Professor in the 
Humanities, professor and chair of classics, and professor of history at 
the University of Chicago. He is the author of Ethnic Identity in Greek 
Antiquity (1997), Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (2002), andH 
History of the Archaic Greek World (2007). 


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CAROLYN HIGBIE is professor of classics at the University of Buffalo 
(The State University of New York). Her scholarly work includes the 
book The Lindian Chronicle and the Greek Creation of Their Past and the 
recent articles “The Bones of a Hero, the Ashes of a Politician: Athens, 
Salamis, and the Usable Past” ( Classical Antiquity 16 (1997) 279-308) and 
“Craterus and the Use of Inscriptions in Ancient Scholarship” (TAPA 
129 (1999) 43-83)- 

GREGORY NAGY has been the Director of the Harvard Center for 
Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC, since 2000, while continuing to 
teach half-time at the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts as 
the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and professor 
of comparative literature. Among the books he has authored are Greek 
Mythology and Poetics (1990), Pindars Homer: The Lyric Possession of an 
Epic Past ( 1990 ), Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (1996), Homeric 
Questions (1996), The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic 
Greek Poetry (2nd ed., with new Introduction, 1999), Homeric Responses 
(2003), Homer’s Text and Language (2004), and Homer the Classic (2007). 
Forthcoming in 2008 is Homer the Preclassic. 

JENIFER NEILS is the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History and 
Classics at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of The 
Youthful Deeds of Theseus (1987) and The Parthenon Frieze (2001) and 
has organized two major exhibitions of Greek art: Goddess and Polis: 
The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens (1992) and Coming of Age in 
Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical World (2003, with 
John Oakley). Professor Neils has contributed several major entries to 
the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae and recently edited The 
Parthenon from Antiquity to the Present (2005). 

MARTIN M. WINKLER is professor of classics at George Mason Uni- 
versity. He has published books and articles on Roman literature, the 
classical tradition, and classical and medieval mythology in film. He 
has edited the essay collections Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema 
(2001), Gladiator: Film and History (2004), Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to 
Hollywood Epic (2006), and Spartacus: Film and History (2007). 

ROGER D. WOODARD is the Andrew V V Raymond Professor of the 
Classics and professor of linguistics at the University of Buffalo (The 
State University of New York). Among his more recent publications are 
Greek Writingfrom Knossos to Homer: A Linguistic Interpretation of the Origin 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 


of the Greek Alphabet and the Continuity of Ancient Greek Literacy (1997), 
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages (2004), Ovid: 
Fasti (with A. J. Boyle, revised edition, 2004), and Indo-European Sacred 
Space: Vedic and Roman Cult (2006). 

VANDA ZAJKO is senior lecturer in classics at the University of Bristol, 
UK. She has wide-ranging interests in the reception of classical myth 
and literature, particularly in the twentieth century. Recent publications 
include “Homer and Ulysses” in The Cambridge Companion to Homer 
(2004), “Narratives of Tragic Predicaments: Frankenstein and Prometheus 
Bound” in The Blackwell Companion to Tragedy (2007), and “What Dif- 
ference Was Made? Feminist Models of Reception” in A Companion 
to Classical Receptions (2007). She is coeditor of Laughing with Medusa: 
Classical Myth and Feminist Thought (2006). 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 


The editor would like to express his appreciation first and foremost 
to the contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, 
distinguished scholars all, without whose dedicated and expert efforts 
this volume could not have taken shape. I wish too to thank Beatrice 
Rehl and her staff at the New York office of Cambridge University Press 
for their characteristic efficiency and professionalism. Thanks go also to 
Professor Amy Graves for assisting Calame and Woodard in producing 
an English translation of Chapter 8 . 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 


Q £?0 


Ancient Near Eastern Texts. See Pritchard 1969 


American Journal of Archaeology 


American Journal oj Philology 

Ant. Class. 

L’Antiquite Classique 


See Nagy 1979 


Bulletin Antieke Beschaving 


Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 

Cl. Ant. 

Classical Antiquity 


Classical Journal 

C Phil. 

Classical Philology 


Classical Quarterly 


Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum 


See Nagy 2005 


The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature 
(etcsl. orinst. ox. ac. uk) 


Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker 


See Nagy 1990b 

Harv. Stud. 

Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 


See Nagy 2007 


See Nagy 2008 


See Nagy 1996b 


See Nagy 2003 


See Nagy 2004b 


Journal of the American Oriental Society 


Journal of Hellenic Studies 


Journal of Near Eastern Studies 


Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich 


Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 


See Nagy 1990a 


See Nagy 1996a 


Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 



Rev. Et. Grec. 

See Nagy 2002 
Revue des etudes grecques 

Transactions of the American Philological Association 

Yale Classical Studies 

Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 

For additional abbreviations the reader might wish to consult, inter alia, 
L’Annee philologique and the Oxford Classical Dictionary. 


Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

Introduction: Muthoi in 
Continuity and Variation 

Roger D. Woodard 

But as a rule the ancient myths [palaious muthous (TtaAaious 
lauQous)] are not found to yield a simple and consistent story, so 
that nobody need wonder if details of my recension cannot be 
reconciled with those given by every poet and historian. 

T he editor trusts that he will be forgiven the presumptuousness 
(or audacity, as the case may be) of beginning with Robert 
Graves’s translation of Diodorus Siculus 4.44.5-6 - the lines 
that Graves prefixed to the preface of his work The Golden Fleece — lines 
that seem no less relevant here than at the outset of Graves’ novelistic 
retelling (influenced by his experiences in the trenches of the Great 
War, no less than by Frazer’s Golden Bough) of the ancient mythic tra- 
dition of the young hero Jason and his band of warrior comrades, who 
sailed from Greece on board the Argo to recover the fleece of a golden 
ram from distant Colchis. What we call “Greek myth” is no featureless 
monolith, but multifaceted, multifarious and multivalent, a fluid phe- 
nomenon, as was obvious to the historian Diodorus in the first century 
BC, and as is made plain by the essays that make up this Cambridge 

The chapters that follow are divided into three major parts. Sources 
and Interpretations, the first part of the three, consists of seven essays 
examining the forms and uses of Greek mythic traditions in Greek 
texts, ranging in period and genre from eighth-century BC oral poetry 
to encyclopedic prose compilations of the early centuries AD — from 
an era rich in a spontaneous performative creativity to one seemingly 
more concerned with documenting the mythic traditions of a glorious 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

literary past. Yet even in the earliest attested periods, there is, as we shall 
see, evidence of a concern for preserving still more ancient forms and 
notions about gods and heroes. 

Part One begins with Gregory Nagy’s examination of the lyric 
poets, followed by his essay on Homer. If from a chronological per- 
spective the order might seem unorthodox — it should not. As Nagy 
reminds his readers, “Lyric did not start in the archaic period. It is just 
as old as epic, which clearly pre-dates the archaic period. And the tra- 
ditions of lyric, like those of epic, were rooted in oral poetry, which is 
a matter of performance as well as composition.” In the archaic period, 
composition and performance are inextricably linked. Nagy explores 
occasions of performance for his readers by examining, inter alia, a “pri- 
mary test case” - the lyric works of the Lesbian poets Sappho and 
Alcaeus, jointly representing “the repertoire of the myths and rituals of 
the people of Lesbos as expressed in lyric performance.” The place of 
such performance was the sacred ritual space of Messon - the space for 
the celebration of the Kallisteia, a festival featuring choral singing and 
dancing by Lesbian women - a ritual space that can be “figured ... in 
mythological terms.” 

In oral lyric poetry, Nagy demonstrates, the interaction of perfor- 
mance with composition parallels “the interaction of myth with ritual. 
The same can be said about the epic poetry attributed to Homer: to per- 
form this epic is to activate myth, and such activation is fundamentally a 
matter of ritual.” The performance of epic poetry is a matter of produc- 
ing “speech-acts” - the doing of something by the act of the speaking 
of something (in the sense of Austin 1962): “In Homeric poetry, the 
word for such a performative act is muthos, ancestor of the modern term 
myth.” Drawing upon Martin 1989, Nagy offers “a working definition 
of muthos as it functions within the epic frame of Homeric poetry: ‘a 
speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in pub- 
lic, with a focus on full attention to every detail.’” The truth-value of 
such speech-acts — ‘myths’ — is a function of their performative framing. 
From the perspective of the lyric poet Pindar, for example, the ‘truth’ 
(. aletheia ) of local myths, set in local rituals, concerning Odysseus and 
Ajax becomes ‘falsehoods’ {pseudea ) when incorporated into the delo- 
calized “master myth” of the epic Odyssey, “controlled by the master 
narrator” of that epic poem: “Under such control, the myths about 
Odysseus in the Odyssey lose the grounding they once had in their 
local contexts. Once muthoi ‘myths’ are delocalized, they become rela- 
tive and thus multiple in application, to be contrasted with the aletheia 
‘truth’ claimed by lyric.” 


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Introduction: Muthoi in Continuity and Variation 

In his chapter on Greek lyric, Nagy writes of the orientalizing of 
Lesbian traditions under the influence of the Lydians of Asia Minor. At 
the end of “Homer and Greek Myth,” he takes note of Homer’s Indo- 
European antecedents, while again reminding his readers of the orien- 
talizing factor — “the lateral influence of Near Eastern languages and civ- 
ilizations.” These two formative elements — Indo-European inheritance 
and Near Eastern influence - lie at the heart of Chapter 3, the editor’s 
treatment of myth in Hesiod’s epic poems, the Theogony and Works and 
Days. Hesiod’s poetic compositions, no less bound up with performance 
than lyric and Homeric epic, attest a particular, even unique, saliency 
and transparency for the formative history, documentation, and study 
of Greek myth and for that reason are examined in close detail. The so- 
called kingship-in-heaven tradition of the Theogony is one well attested 
among various Near Eastern peoples of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia 
and is reported to have existed in a Phoenician form as well. Hesiod’s 
kingship-in-heaven account, though a primitive and core component of 
the “ancient myths” of the Greeks, was almost certainly taken over from 
one or another of these Near Eastern cultures and not inherited from 
the Greeks’ own Indo-European ancestors. Hesiod’s Works and Days is 
a didactic poem that is itself of a sort commonly encountered in the 
Near East (the Biblical book of Proverbs perhaps being the most famil- 
iar example), and Near Eastern influence in this case is also undeniable. 
For some scholars in fact, such as Georges Dumezil, precious little of 
Greek myth appears to be inherited from earlier Indo-European peri- 
ods. Yet, I argue, following in part Jean-Pierre Vernant, there are indeed 
primitive Indo-European elements present — and conspicuously so — in 
Works and Days (as well as in the Theogony ): “The playful, creative use 
to which Hesiod puts these inherited notions and conventions and the 
freedom that he displays in restructuring them on the surface, while 
preserving what we may term underlying structures, suggests to us that 
this ‘Hesiod’ is fully conversant with traditions of his Indo-European 

With Richard Buxton’s chapter on tragedy and Greek myth, we 
move some 300 years beyond Homer and Hesiod, squarely into the 
world of classical Greek literature. The performative element of myth 
is, however, still central: “At the annual festival of the City Dionysia, 
myths were reembodied in performances by members of the citizen 
group. In these reembodiments, as heroes and divinities walked the 
stage, myths were not just narrated as past events: they were actualised 
as present happenings. Then and there, but also now and here; remote 
enough to allow room for pity, but close enough to inspire awe.” Among 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

core issues explored by Buxton is that of the locality of this tragic reem- 
bodiment of muthoi — political, social, topographical, and psychological 
spaces of liminality: “the distinctive location of tragic myths is in the 
gaps between certainties. Tragedy is a place of edges and margins, an 
in-between territory where boundaries — literal and metaphorical — are 
ripe for exploration and contestation.” The gods of the muthoi form 
the “framework” or “backdrop” of competitive tragic performance, 
Buxton demonstrates: “Each playwright staged his own version of the 
mythological past, striving to be adjudged superior to his rivals.” The 
result was typically one in which the gods appear in conflict with one 
another and in which there is displayed a “readiness to tolerate overt 
criticism of the gods’ behaviour” — “one feature of ancient Greek reli- 
gion which can be particularly difficult to comprehend for a modern 

Such a willingness to scorn the gods is no less an element 
of myth-in-comedy, as Angus Bowie shows us in his essay “Myth 
in Aristophanes.” Considering first the few remains of mythological 
Old Comedy generally — best evidenced by a summary of Cratinus’ 
Dionysalexandrus, in which the story of the Trojan War “is reworked so 
that Dionysus becomes as it were a failed actor in the role of Paris” - 
Bowie observes that comedy “was a genre in which the gods were not 
spared mockery, even the god in whose honour the festival was being 
held. Indeed, Dionysus [celebrated by the City Dionysia] is the most 
frequent butt of humour in the comedies as far as we can tell: the god 
features regularly in his own festival.” Indeed, from the fragmentary 
texts mythological Old Comedy looks to be a genre that “could take 
considerable liberties with mythology” and one that could frequently 
use a “mythical story for political purpose.” Turning to Aristophanes, 
Bowie notes that “one not infrequent category of comedy is that which 
parodies earlier tragic performances of myth. The difficulty here is that 
it is not always clear whether Aristophanes is producing a parodic ver- 
sion of a myth or a parody of a particular tragic version of that myth.” 
Beyond this, Bowie argues, comedy can imitate the structure of myth 
and its affiliated framing festivals, as in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, 
structured in such a way that “the comedy . . . has (allegedly) the same 
benefit to the city as the Thesmophoria,” the Eleusinian festival of 

Diskin Clay next examines Plato and myth in “Plato Philo- 
mythos.” Clay captures the essential if sometimes unrecognized otherness 
of Greek “myth” for modern peoples and contextualizes it nicely for 
us — and this is very important — as he writes: “The luxuriant varieties 


Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

Introduction: Muthoi in Continuity and Variation 

of definitions of Greek ‘myth’ are a symptom of the remoteness of our 
culture from the culture of ancient Greece. We have no real equiva- 
lent for the traditional stories and histories that circulated among the 
Greeks (and Romans) concerning their origins, the origins of their 
world, their gods and the progeny of their gods, the relation between 
humans and animals, and the fate awaiting mortals after death.” Among 
the issues that Clay addresses is the contrastiveness not uncommonly 
set up between mythos (i.e., muthos) and logos (“the myth of logos versus 
mythos”). “In Homer, mythos is a word that describes something said in 
epic. But already in Herodotus the word mythos had come to describe an 
idle and unbelievable tale. . . . Yet Herodotus’ predecessor, Hecataeus of 
Miletus, can describe his own history as a mythos . . . and, conversely, 
traditional but misleading historical accounts as logoi. . . . Thucydides 
rejected what he called the poets’ ‘tendency to myth’ . . . but, in his 
narrative of speeches . . . logoi were often the equivalent of myths.” And 
what of Plato? “Because of the deliberate ambiguity he has created in 
his dialogues as to what constitutes a mythos and what qualifies as a 
logos, Plato has contributed to our modern confusion over what can 
be described as a ‘myth.’” Though he can use mythos to denote ‘fable’ 
and logos a ‘noble and true account’, as in the Gorgias, “the distinction 
does not hold. Elsewhere in Plato, what we would regard as his seriously 
meant truth is often treated as a mythos, and fictions, based on traditional 
accounts, are called logoi.” Clay further observes, “Whether a narrative 
is called a mythos or logos depends on the viewpoint of the teller of 
the tale (usually Socrates) and his audience.” More than that, Plato is 
capable of the “simultaneous dismissal and use of Greek myth.” And 
Plato is himself a mythmaker — an artisan “weaving the strands of Greek 
myth into a fabric of his own design”: “It has been said that myth died 
in Plato’s youth. It did not. Of all Greek philosophers, Plato is most 
mythopoeic” (and “the most notorious of Plato’s myths is the myth 
of Atlantis . . . the most impressive philosophical fiction ever written”) . 
“Plato’s real quarrel,” Clay shows us, “is not with Greek myth; it is with 
the poetry of the Greek polis and its false and debasing representations 
of reality.” 

Part One comes to an end with Carolyn Higbie’s contribution on 
the “Hellenistic Mythographers”: “from sometime in the fourth cen- 
tury BC on, Greeks developed an interest in collecting, documenting, 
and interpreting the important literary works of their past.” Scholarly 
devotion to the written records of performative traditions led to the 
production of interpretative aids and an acute awareness of the partic- 
ular body of information preserved within these traditions: “from this 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

double opportunity . . . developed at least two genres, mythography and 
paradoxography” - “stories about the gods and heroes” and “stories 
about the weird or unusual,” respectively. Higbie notes that “myths 
certainly appeared in prose texts before the Hellenistic world, but they 
lack, so far as one can tell from the fragmentary remains, the flavor of a 
compilation, of time spent in libraries gathering stories from different 
sources.” Of such “mythological compendia,” “the most famous and 
influential, in modern times, ... is the Bibliotheca — ‘Library’ ” authored 
by Apollodorus in, perhaps, the first century AD. 

Part Two, Response, Integration, Representation, begins with Claude 
Calame’s discussion of “Greek Myth and Greek Religion.” The posi- 
tion occupied by Calame’s work - at the midpoint of the volume - is 
metaphorically significant: it is a work that intersects in crucial ways 
with several of the contributions that precede and several that follow. 
Opening with the claim that “neither ‘myth’ nor ‘religion’ constitutes 
a category native to Greek thought,” Calame challenges the very exis- 
tence of what we are given to conceptualize as Greek mythology - “unless 
considered in the form of manuals of mythography, such as the one in 
the Library attributed to Apollodorus.” His examination of the relation- 
ship of Greek “myth” and “religion” takes the form of five case studies: 
in each, he observes, “we can see how an individual heroic tale is called 
upon to legitimate a particular cult practice through an intermediary 
poetic form that influences both the narrative and semantic characteris- 
tics of the account and the religious and political conception underlying 
the ritual concerned.” Calame’s conclusion from the fivefold examina- 
tion - “Supported by poetic genre, this or that episode of the divine and 
heroic past of the Greek communities is inserted into both a specific 
cult institution and a form of ritual poetry, most often choral. These 
poetic forms make from narratives, appearing to us as mythic, an active 
history, inscribed in a collective memory realized through ritual.” And, 
he continues, “The ensemble of the myths of the Hellenic tradition is 
characterized by a certain plasticity that allows the poetic creation of 
versions constantly readapted for cult and for religious and ideological 
paradigms offered by a polytheism that varies within the multifarious 
civic space and time of the cities of Greece.” 

In “Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language,” Jenifer 
Neils begins by reminding the reader that, with respect to myth, “Greek 
narrative art displays an amazing degree of imagination, ingenuity, and 
originality” (echoing Calame and many of the contributors that the 
reader has by now encountered) and goes on to expound manageably 
for the reader the vast domain of Greek myth and art by focusing on 


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Introduction: Muthoi in Continuity and Variation 

two essential — one might say “performative” — elements: “First, what 
devices did the artist employ for depicting a myth and how did this 
visual language come about? Second, how did the artist make his chosen 
theme relevant to a particular audience at a specific point in time?” 
Special attention is given to the example of a wine cup decorated by 
the Codrus painter on which are depicted “the seven deeds of the local 
hero Theseus.” Harbingering Jonathan Hall’s discussion of Athenian 
usage of Theseus for political ends (Chapter n), Neils reveals how, 
when the symbolism of the object is properly parsed, “this cycle cup 
does much more than recount some of the deeds of the hero Theseus; it 
rewrites history by associating Athens’s glorious Bronze Age hero with 
its glorious present. For the Athenians their myths were their history, 
and they saw no problem in embellishing them for the greater glory of 
the polis.” 

Treatment of the visual aspect of the presentation of Greek myth 
continues in Ada Cohen’s “Mythic Landscapes of Greece”; Cohen 
offers an insightful look at the use of landscape - caves, countryside, 
the Underworld, mountains, and so on — vis-a-vis mythic represen- 
tation in both literature and art, exploring the “intersection of nar- 
rative and description in light of common as well as rarely depicted 
myths in painting and sculpture.” Pausanias, the second-century AD 
periegetic (travel) author, is an important literary source for Cohen and 
other scholars of mythic landscape - a source with a retrospective view: 
“When invoking landmark single trees and groves as noteworthy spa- 
tial markers . . . Pausanias, to whom we owe much of our knowledge of 
ancient sites and now-lost monuments, did not linger on their greenery 
or on the flowers and fruits they produced, but on their cultic associa- 
tions as well as associations with important events of the classical past.” 
The use of landscape in ancient Greek art is surprisingly limited; when 
landscape elements are depicted, it is by utilizing “a restrained reper- 
toire and a symbolic employment of landscape.” Even so, Cohen argues, 
there is in Greek art “a rich and viable conception of landscape.” She 
concludes that “in all cases artists took for granted their audiences’ deep 
familiarity with the Greek landscape and asked the imagination to fill 
the voids. This situation is in the end not so different from that of myth- 
ical discourse itself, whose multiple versions were the result of traditions 
colliding with individual tellers’ points of view and emphases.” 

It is with a contrastive reference to this Roman-era Greek, Pau- 
sanias, and the “matrix of myth and memories” that Pausanias invokes 
for the various poleis he visits, that Jonathan Hall begins his essay on 
“Politics and Greek Myth” (“The fact is that myth meant something 


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entirely different to the Greeks of Pausanias’ generation than it had to 
their ancestors”). The political uses of myth that Hall addresses - “myth’s 
capacity to charter and justify changing political circumstances” - are, 
he argues, grounded in myth’s ideological character and its existence as a 
productive symbolic system (analogous to the system of langue and parole 
of Saussurian structural linguistics): “Through the dynamic dialectic 
between narrator and audience, traditional materials could be recon- 
figured and modulated to stake claims about the natural order and to 
advance partisan interests and it is precisely myth’s ideological charac- 
ter that made it so effective in the practice of ancient Greek politics.” 
The mutability and adaptability of myth is foregrounded, again, as Hall 
presents his readers with three case studies: these involve the Spartan and 
Argive use of “mythical prototypes of alliances to justify their own claims 
to Peloponnesian hegemony in the mid-sixth century”; the Athenian 
Pisistratus’ capitalizing upon Theseus as “an attractive prototype of the 
strong, wise, and just leader” and his elevation of “Theseus to Pana- 
thenaic status”; and the fifth-century “orientalization” of the Trojans, 
consequent, chiefly, to the second Persian War. 

A. J. Boyle’s “Ovid and Greek Myth,” the concluding chapter of 
Part Two, which moves the reader squarely into Imperial Rome, brings 
this aspect of Greek myth into the sharpest focus yet: “Much of the 
discursive and political use of Greek myth was made possible by its sep- 
aration from Roman ritual, its function in Roman intellectual life as an 
instrument of thinking. By Roman intellectuals Greek myth was gen- 
erally regarded as fabulae, a collection of fictions.” “[Ovid] is fully aware 
of the contemporary categorisation of myth as fiction. . . . His inter- 
est in myth is neither religious nor ritualistic, but poetic.” With regard 
specifically to Ovid’s sardonic literary response to Augustus’ moral legis- 
lation (“The transformation of adultery and other forms of transgressive 
fornication [stuprum] into crimes with severe penalties imposed by a spe- 
cial permanent court [quaestio perpetua ] suddenly made sexual morality 
and practice subject to political control”), Boyle observes, “The poet 
develops his subversion of Augustan sexual codes by turning to Greek 
myth — to the famous adulteress Helen”; that Ovid should have invoked 
the unfaithful wife of Menelaus “not as a denunciation of adulterers but 
rather as a text pontificating on the excusability, even innocence, of 
certain kinds of adultery, astonishes”: thus, Boyle concludes, “Myth’s 
paradigmatic function dissolves into political and social critique.” Ovid’s 
stinging political critiques can, already in the first century, make recourse 
to the otherness of Greek myth: “What Ovid presents in Metamorphoses 
is a world of unaccountable otherness, in which controllers of that 


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Introduction: Muthoi in Continuity and Variation 

world and the putative guardians of its morality exemplify the vices they 

A work of central interest to Boyle is Heroides, “an early work of 
Ovid and a self-proclaimed revolutionary one ( Ars 3.346), in which a 
whole collection of poems focusses on the female voice, female mem- 
ory, and female desire.” These, in turn, are issues on which the first 
chapter of section three, Reception, has direct bearing - “Women and 
Greek Myth” by Vanda Zajko, an essay that explores “some of the ten- 
sions surrounding the descriptions of stories about women as being ‘pro’ 
or ‘anti’ women and the ideological entailments of such descriptions.” 
One of the issues with which Zajko deals is central to all of the chapters 
of Part Three, and indeed one that we have repeatedly encountered in 
the first two Parts — that of the “rewriting of myth. ” At what point does 
the “rewriting” of a myth create something that is fundamentally dif- 
ferent from that myth? Is the result of the “rewriting” still “myth” — still 
muthosl These are questions with which the reader of this Companion will 
have to grapple. Zajko herself chooses to paint with the broader stroke: 
“But tradition can be seen as a less static concept that is, and always has 
been, reshaped and reenergised by continual retellings. Dohertys state- 
ment that ‘the modern rewritings of myths is a continuation of ancient 
practice’ [(2001) 10] subscribes to this kind of notion and emphasises 
that ancient poets and artists freely imported the issues of their own 
times into their treatments of myth.” 

“Let Us Make Gods in Our Image,” David Brumbies contribu- 
tion on Greek myth in Medieval and Renaissance literature, follows. 
Allegorical interpretation of the ancient myths is the hallmark of these 
materials, whose authors and readers often assume a composite and 
variegated profile of Greek mythic figures — the product of the depo- 
sition of layers of interpretative accretion, one upon another: “Theseus 
appears in the ‘Knight’s Tale.’ A good classical dictionary would not 
tell us that Chaucer’s readers might have interpreted Theseus as a wis- 
dom figure; as an example of perfect friendship, of the ideal ruler, of 
the unfaithful lover; as a type for God or Christ; as an allegorical fig- 
ure for the balance of the active and contemplative lives.” In keeping 
with the Medieval Christian tradition of interpreting Old Testament 
figures typologically (i.e., as “types”), “Deucalion was a type of Noah”; 
“Hippolytus . . . could be a type of Joseph”; “Hippolytus, Theseus, 
Hercules, Orpheus, and many others served as types of Christ.” Among 
interpretative methods utilized was that one dubbed “fourfold alle- 
gory,” involving allegorical readings at different levels simultaneously — 
a method readily associated with Dante; though, Brumble reminds his 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

readers, “fourfold allegory is just one expression of the Medieval and 
Renaissance inclination to multiple interpretation.” 

Sarah Brown treats the literary response to Greek myth from the 
seventeenth century onward in her “Hail Muse! et cetera : Greek Myth 
in English and American Literature”: “Many of the most interesting 
responses to Greek myth register its polyvalency, and display a corre- 
sponding ambivalence towards their sources, a combination of reverence 
and antagonism.” The interpretative tradition of this era is clearly heir 
to the past, but is also, one might say, “reactive” (the editor’s term, not 
the author’s): “Mythology is central to the works of Pope, Keats, Pound, 
Toni Morrison, and Carol Ann Duffy, inter alia , but each of these writers 
figures his or her relationship with the classical past in a distinctive way.” 
Brown demonstrates that the pendulum has oscillated between what 
she aptly likens to the Protestant and Catholic aspects of Christianity: 
“Whereas some writers appear to seek an unmediated correspondence 
with an ‘authentic’ and pristine past, wherever possible sloughing off 
intervening layers of adaptation and reception, for others Greek myth 
represents a continuous tradition whose origins may certainly be traced 
back to Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, et al., but which owes at least as 
crucial a debt to such mediating forces as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and 
Milton.” In part, these oscillations reflect a resurgence of literary aware- 
ness of and interest in Greek-language, as opposed to Latinized, mythic 
materials: “Gradually, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth 
centuries, interest in Greek antiquities, literature and society intensi- 
fied, and a movement away from Roman culture towards Greek can be 
identified, although the shift was not stark or absolute.” Still — the pen- 
dulum has momentum; in commenting on the monologues in Duffy’s 
The World’s Wife, Brown observes: “They emerge from the strong late- 
twentieth-century reawakening of interest in classical myth, in part a 
response to Ted Hughes’s much praised Tales from Ovid. (We seemed to 
have returned to the Renaissance preference for Latinised mythology.)” 
The Companion concludes with Martin Winkler’s treatment of the 
portrayal of myth in cinema, “Greek Mythology on the Screen.” The 
interpretative dimension of Greek mythic tradition is perhaps nowhere 
more pronounced than here: “Cinema and its offspring, television, 
have proven the most fertile ground for reimagining and reinventing 
antiquity.” As Winkler tells us — and as the reader will have by now 
observed many times over — “the tradition of imagining alternatives to 
well-attested and even canonical versions of myth goes back to antiquity 
itself. . . .This tradition has never ceased.” The phenomenon of con- 
temporary cinematic reinterpretation, Winkler continues, citing Italian 

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Introduction: Muthoi in Continuity and Variation 

director Vittorio Cottafavi, has been dubbed “neomythologism.” Just 
how far removed such neomythologism can be from acts and contexts 
of muthoi that the reader encountered in the early chapters of this vol- 
ume — and especially in Calame’s myth and religion chapter — is revealed, 
for example, by comments made by director Wolfgang Petersen regard- 
ing his film Troy (2004): “I think that, if we could consult with him up 
there, Homer would be the first today to advise: ‘Get rid of the gods.’ ” 
For some readers such a claim will be received with disbelief, revealing, 
as it does, an inverted state of affairs consequent to a full denuding of the 
framing contexts of muthoi ; but, Winkler contends, “filmmakers follow 
their own rules when they make mythological films and do not consider 
themselves bound by their sources. In the process they become adap- 
tors of stories comparable to the ancient poets themselves, who took the 
materials for their epics or dramas from older versions of myth.” Thus, 
Winkler continues, “Cottafavi’s film [Hercules Conquers Atlantis (1961)] 
is a prime example of neomythologism, but it is more. It exemplifies a 
society’s understanding of the past in modern terms. The Atlantis from 
whose sinister threat Hercules saves the world reflects the twentieth 
century in two major aspects”: the potential for a nuclear apocalypse 
and the threat of extermination posed by totalitarian ideologies. 

The editor has chosen — revealingly, one hopes, if, admittedly, 
a bit idiosyncratically - to preface each section with a few pertinent 
lines from A Wonder Book 1 and Tanglewood Tales , 2 together Hawthorne’s 
mid-nineteenth-century retelling of various Greek myths, ostensibly 
for children — a creative adaptation of the remotely other, penned in 
a Transcendentalized New England in the decade that preceded that 
Rubiconic upheaval that tore a nation apart and metamorphosed its 
children — making ghosts of its sons, widows of its daughters. Follow- 
ing each selection from Hawthorne is an ancient Greek text, two from 
Apollodorus, one from Hesiod. 3 These juxtapositions — Hawthorne, 
Greek authors, contemporary essays — are intended to serve several 
ends: to demonstrate the malleability of the Greek traditions, for one; 
for another, to remind ourselves of both the enchanting romantic famil- 
iarity of these materials, and of their utter foreignness in a world from 
which their formative frame vanished long ago. Perhaps the reader will 
recognize others. 

These old legends, so brimming over with everything that 
is most abhorrent to our Christianised moral sense — some 
of them so hideous, others so melancholy and miserable, 
amid which the Greek tragedians sought their themes, and 

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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

moulded them into the sternest forms of grief that ever the 
world saw; was such material the stuff that children’s play- 
things should be made of! How were they to be purified? 

How was the blessed sunshine to be thrown into them? 

But Eustace [Eustace Bright - Hawthornes Williams 
College narrator] told me that these myths were the most 
singular things in the world, and that he was invariably aston- 
ished, whenever he began to relate one, by the readiness with 
which it adapted itself to the childish purity of his audi- 
tors. The objectionable characteristics seem to be a parasiti- 
cal growth, having no essential connection with the original 
fable. They fall away, and are thought of no more, the instant 
he puts his imagination in sympathy with the innocent little 
circle, whose wide-open eyes are fixed so eagerly upon him. 

Thus the stories (not by any strained effort of the narrator’s, 
but in harmony with their inherent germ) transform them- 
selves, and reassume the shapes which they might be sup- 
posed to possess in the pure childhood of the world. When 
the first poet or romancer told these marvelous legends (such 
is Eustace Bright’s opinion), it was still the Golden Age. Evil 
had never yet existed; and sorrow, misfortune, crime, were 
mere shadows which the mind fancifully created for itself, as 
a shelter against too sunny realities; or, at most, but prophetic 
dreams, to which the dreamer himself did not yield a waking 
credence. Children are now the only representatives of the 
men and women of that happy era; and therefore it is that we 
must raise the intellect and fancy to the level of childhood, 
in order to recreate the original myths. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne; from the Preface to 
Tangleu’ood Tales (1853) 

Toward contextualizing Hawthorne himself (though only in part — and 
Hawthorne could only dubiously be described as a “mythologist”), 
Grafs remarks are helpful: 

The mythologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth cen- 
turies clung to the notion that to explain myth one had 
to discover its origin, which, they believed, lay in the child- 
hood of mankind. Accordingly, the interpretation of myth 
always seemed to involve reconstructing the life of early man. 
Requiring a basis for this reconstruction, the theorists of 

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Introduction: Muthoi in Continuity and Variation 

this period turned to the so-called primitive peoples of their 
own day, to children, and to the simplest peasants of Europe, 
all of whom, it was thought, resembled early man in some 
respects. 4 

The reader will find more discussion of such matters in Chapters 14 
and 15. 

And so we begin. 


1 The text of A Wonder Book quoted herein is that oi 1883 Riverside Edition pub- 
lished by Houghton Mifflin and reprinted by /hgypan Press. 

2 The text of Tanglewood Tales quoted herein is that of the 1918 edition published by 
Hodder and Stoughton and reprinted by The Folio Society. 

3 The translations of Apollodorus and Hesiod are those of the editor, adapted from 
Woodard, in press. 

4 Graf (1993) 33. 


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Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

i: Lyric and Greek Myth 

Gregory Nagy 

T n the history of Greek literature, poets of “lyric” are conventionally 
associated with the archaic period. Some would go so far as to call this 
period a “lyric age,” to be contrasted with an earlier age represented 
by Homer and Hesiod, poets of “epic.” There is in fact a book about the 
archaic period bearing the title The Lyric Age of Greece (Burn i960). 
The archaic period ended around the second half of the fifth century 
BCE, to be followed by the so-called classical period. The archaic period 
is thought to have ended with the lyric poet Pindar, while the classical 
period is thought to have begun with the tragic poet Aeschylus, even 
though these two literary figures were roughly contemporaneous. 

There is a lack of precision in the general use of the term lyric. 
It is commonly associated with a variety of assumptions regarding the 
historical emergence of a “subjective I,” as represented by the individual 
poet of lyric, who is to be contrasted with the generic poet of epic, 
imagined as earlier and thus somehow less advanced. By extension, 
the subjective I is thought to be symptomatic of emerging notions of 
authorship. Such assumptions, it is argued here, cannot be sustained. 

Lyric did not start in the archaic period. It is just as old as epic, 
which clearly pre-dates the archaic period. And the traditions of lyric, 
like those of epic, were rooted in oral poetry, which is a matter of perfor- 
mance as well as composition (Lord 1995: 22—68, “Oral Traditional Lyric 
Poetry”) . 

These two aspects of oral poetry, composition and performance, 
are interactive, and this interaction is parallel to the interaction of myth 
and ritual. In oral poetry, the performing of a composition is an acti- 
vation of myth, and such activation is fundamentally a matter of ritual 
(Nagy I 994 /I 995 )- 

During the archaic period, the artistic production of lyric involved 
performance as well as composition. The performance was executed 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

either by a single performer or by a group that was actually or at least 
notionally participating in the performance. The most prominent Greek 
word referring to such a group is khoros ‘chorus’, which designates not 
just singing, like its derivative chorus in English, but dancing as well. 
Choral lyric could be sung and danced, or just sung or just danced. To 
be contrasted is monody, which means ‘solo singing’. 

Lyric could be sung to the accompaniment of a string instrument, 
ordinarily the kithara, which is conventionally translated as ‘lyre’. This 
English noun lyre and its adjective lyric are derived from lura (lyra), which 
is another Greek word for a string instrument. Lyric could also be sung 
to the accompaniment of a wind instrument, ordinarily the aulos ‘reed’. 
Either way, whether the accompaniment took the form of string or 
wind instruments, a more precise term for such lyric is melic, derived 
from the Greek noun melos ‘song’. English melody is derived from Greek 
meldidia, which means ‘the singing of melos’. 

Lyric could also be sung without instrumental accompaniment. In 
some forms of unaccompanied lyric, the melody was reduced and the 
rhythm became more regulated than the rhythm of melic. In describing 
the rhythm of these forms of unaccompanied lyric, it is more accurate 
to use the term meter. And, in describing the performance of this kind 
of lyric, it is more accurate to speak of reciting instead of singing. Recited 
poetry is typified by three meters in particular: dactylic hexameter, elegiac 
couplet, and iambic trimeter. In ancient Greek poetic traditions, the dactylic 
hexameter became the sole medium of epic. As a poetic form, then, 
epic is far more specialized than lyric (PH [= Nagy 1990a] i§§i— 16, 
55 - 64 )- 

In the classical period, the solo performance of lyric poetry, both 
melic and nonmelic, became highly professionalized. Melic poetry was 
sung by professional soloists - either kitharoidoi ‘citharodes’ (= ‘kithara- 
singers’) or auloidoi ‘aulodes’ (= ‘aulos-singers’) — while nonmelic poetry 
was recited by professional soloists called rhapsoidoi ‘rhapsodes’. Such 
solo performance was monody. In classical Athens, the primary occasion 
for citharodic, or aulodic, or rhapsodic solo performance was the fes- 
tival of the Panathenaia, which was the context of competitions called 
mousikoi agones ‘musical contests’. These Panathenaic agones ‘contests’ 
were mousikoi ‘musical’ only in the sense that they were linked with 
the goddesses of poetic memory, the Muses (HC [— Nagy 2007] 3 §4). 
They were not ‘musical’ in the modern sense, since the contests fea- 
tured epic as well as lyric poetry. The epic repertoire was restricted to 
the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, competitively performed by rhapsodes, 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

while the lyric repertoire was restricted to melic poetry, competitively 
performed by citharodes and aulodes. 

In the classical period of Athens, melic poetry was also sung and 
danced by nonprofessional choruses. The primary occasion for such per- 
formances was the festival of the City Dionysia, the official venue of 
Athenian state theater. The actors who delivered their lines by recit- 
ing the verses of nonmelic poetry embedded in the dramas of Athenian 
state theater were professionals, while the choruses who sang and danced 
the melic poetry also embedded in these dramas were nonprofessional, 
recruited from the body politic of citizens; theatrical choruses became 
professionalized only after the classical period, toward the end of the 
fourth century BCE (PP [= Nagy 1996a] 157, 172-6). 

The performances of nonprofessional choruses in Athenian state 
theater represent an essential aspect of melic poetry that transcends the 
classical period. Not only in Athens but throughout the Greek-speaking 
world of the classical period and beyond, the most authoritative context 
of melic poetry was choral performance. The khoros ‘chorus’ was in fact 
a basic social reality in all phases of archaic Greek prehistory and history, 
and this reality was essential in the evolution of lyric during these phases 
(Calame 2001). 

An important differentiation becomes evident in the course of this 
evolution. It is an emerging split between the composer and the per- 
former of lyric. Before this split, the authorship of any lyric composition 
was closely linked to the authority of lyric performance. This authority 
played itself out in a dramatized relationship between the khoros ‘cho- 
rus’ and a highlighted khoregos ‘leader of the chorus’, as idealized in 
the relationship of the Muses as chorus to Apollo as their choral leader 
(PH 12 §29). In lyric, as we will see, such authority is linked to the 
articulation of myth itself. 

The khoros, as an institution, was considered the most authoritative 
medium not only for the performance of lyric composition but also for 
its transmission in the archaic period. As we see from the wording 
of choral lyric poetry, the poet’s voice is transmitted and notionally 
perpetuated by the seasonally recurring choral performances of his or 
her poetry. A most prominent example is Song 1 ofAlcman (PH I2§i8). 
The voices of the performers who sing and dance such poetry can even 
speak of the poet by name in the third person, identifying him as the 
one who composed their song. An example is Song 39 of Aleman. In 
other situations, the choral lyric composer speaks in the first person by 
borrowing, as it were, the voices of those who sing and dance in his 

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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

choral compositions. In Song 26 of Aleman, for example, the speaker 
declares that he is too old and weak to dance with the chorus of women 
who sing and dance his song: by implication, he continues to sing as 
their lead singer (PH I2§32). 

For an understanding of authority and authorship in lyric poetry, 
more needs to be said about the actual transmission of lyric from the 
archaic into the classical period. The lyric traditions of the archaic period 
became an integral part of liberal education for the elites of the classical 
period. In leading cities such as Athens, the young were educated by 
professionals in the nonprofessional singing, dancing, and reciting of 
songs that stemmed from the archaic period - songs that had become 
the classics of the classical period. As we see in the Clouds of Aristophanes 
(1:355-6), a young man who had the benefit of such an education could 
be expected to perform the artistic feat of singing solo a choral song 
composed by the archaic poet Simonides (F 507) while accompanying 
himself on the lyre. Elsewhere in the Clouds (967), we see a similar 
reference to a similar solo performance of a choral song composed by 
the even more archaic poet Stesichorus (F 274). 

Among the elites of the classical period, the primary venue for the 
nonprofessional performance of archaic lyric songs that youths learned 
through such a liberal education was the sumposion ‘symposium’. Like 
the chorus, the symposium was a basic social reality in all phases of 
archaic Greek prehistory and history. And, like the chorus, it was a 
venue for the nonprofessional performance of lyric in all its forms. 

The poets of lyric in the archaic period became the models for 
performing lyric in the classical period. And, as models, these figures 
became part of a canon ofmelic poets (Wilamowitz 1900: 63—71). This 
canon, as it evolved from the archaic into the classical period and beyond, 
was composed of the following nine figures: Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, 
Aleman, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides. To 
this canonical grouping we may add a tenth figure, Corinna, although 
her status as a member of the canon was a matter of dispute in the post- 
classical period (PH 3§2n3). Other figures can be classified as authors of 
nonmelic poetry: they include Archilochus, Callinus, Hipponax, Mim- 
nermus, Theognis, Tyrtaeus, Semonides, Solon, and Xenophanes. 

One of these figures, Xenophanes, can be classified in other ways 
as well. He is one of the so-called pre-Socratic thinkers whose thinking 
is attested primarily in the form of poetry. Two other such figures are 
Empedocles and Parmenides. Since the extant poetry of Xenophanes 
is composed in elegiac couplets, he belongs technically to the overall 
category of lyric poetry, whereas Empedocles and Parmenides do not, 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

since their extant poetry is composed in dactylic hexameters, which are 
the medium of epic. 

Such taxonomies are imprecise in any case. A case in point is 
Simonides, whose attested compositions include nonmelic poetry (like 
the Plataea Elegy, F n W 2 ) as well as melic poetry. Simonides is credited 
with the composition of epigrams as well ( Epigrammata I— LXXXIX, 
edited by Page). Conversely, the poetry of Sappho was evidently not 
restricted to melic: she is credited with the composition of elegiac cou- 
plets, iambic trimeters, and even epigrammatic dactylic hexameters (T 2; 
F 157— 159D). A comparable phenomenon in the archaic period is the 
perception of Homer as an epigrammatist (as in the Herodotean Life of 
Homer 133-40 Allen; HPC [— Nagy 2008] i§§8 — 9). 

On the basis of what we have seen so far, it is clear that a given 
lyric composition could be sung or recited, instrumentally accompanied 
or not accompanied, and danced or not danced. It could be performed 
solo or in ensemble. Evidently, all these variables contributed to a wide 
variety of genres, but the actual categories of these genres are in gen- 
eral difficult to determine (Harvey 1955). Moreover, the categories as 
formulated in the postclassical period and thereafter may be in some 
respects artificial (M. Davies 1988). Such difficulties can be traced back 
to the fact that the actual writing down of archaic lyric poetry blurs 
whatever we may know about the occasion or occasions of perfor- 
mance. The genres of lyric poetry stem ultimately from such occasions 
(Nagy 1994/1995). 

In the postclassical period, antiquarians lost interest in finding 
out about occasions for performance, and they assumed for the most 
part that poets in the archaic period composed by way of writing. For 
example, Pausanias (7.20.4) says that Alcaeus wrote ( graphein ) his Hymn 
to Hermes (F 308c). A similar assumption is made about Homer himself: 
Pausanias (3. 24.11, 8.29.2) thinks of Homer as an author who wrote 
( graphein ) his poetry. 

In the classical period, by contrast, the making of poetry by the 
grand poets of the past was not equated with the act of writing (HPC 
i§8). As we see from the wording of Plato, for example ( Phaedo g^d, 
Hippias Minor 371a, Republic 2.378d, Ion 53ic-d), Homer is consistently 
pictured as a poet who ‘makes’ ( poiem ) his poetry, not as one who 
‘writes’ (graphein ) it. So also Herodotus says that Homer and Hesiod 
‘make’ (poiem) what they say in poetry (2.53.2); and he says elsewhere 
that Alcaeus ‘makes’ (poiem ) his poetry (5.95). 

In any case, the basic fact remains that the composition of poetry 
in the archaic period came to life in peformance, not in the reading of 


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something that was written. Accordingly, the occasions of performance 
need to be studied in their historical contexts. 

In this chapter, the primary test case for studying occasions of 
performance is the lyric poetry attributed to Sappho and Alcaeus. The 
historical context of this poetry is relatively better known than the con- 
texts of other comparable poetry. The place in question is the island 
of Lesbos, off the northern coast of Asia Minor. The time in question 
is around 600 BCE. That rough date matches a reference in a song of 
Alcaeus (F 49.12) to a contemporary event that can be dated indepen- 
dently, the destruction of Ascalon by Nebuchadnezzar, King ofBabylon, 
in 604 BCE (Alcaeus T 1). 

The lyric poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus, taken together, repre- 
sents the repertoire of the myths and the rituals of the people of Lesbos 
as expressed in lyric performance. Their poetry, and its transmission, 
goes back to a period when the city-states of the island of Lesbos were 
confederated into a single state. This federal state, the political term for 
which was sunoikisis (Thucydides 3.3.1), was dominated by Mytilene, 
the city of Sappho and Alcaeus. There was a single communal place 
reserved for the festivals of this island federation, and that place 
was named Messon, the ‘middle space’, as Louis Robert (i960) has 
demonstrated, primarily on the basis of relevant epigraphical evidence. 
Songs 129 and 130 of Alcaeus show explicit references to this federal 
space, which is described as sacred to three divinities: Zeus, Hera, and 
Dionysus. Also relevant is a reference to the teikhos basileion ‘wall of 
kings’ (Alcaeus 130A.15), which is equated with ‘the [precinct-]wall of 
Hera’ (according to a scholion in the relevant papyrus fragment). 

The same federal space is mentioned in Song 17 of Sappho (also 
T 59), where the woman who is the main speaker is represented as 
praying to the goddess Hera: as this speaker says, it was tuide ‘here’ 
(line 7) at this federal space that the heroes Agamemnon and Menelaos 
made a stop after their destruction of Troy; and it was here, the speaker 
continues, that these Achaean heroes prayed to Zeus and Hera and 
Dionysus (lines 9-10), asking the gods to reveal to them the best way 
to sail back home. There is a related reference in Odyssey 3, where the 
story is told how Menelaos (but not Agamemnon) and his men joined 
Nestor and Diomedes in Lesbos (line 169) after the destruction of Troy 
in order to consult an unnamed god about the best way to sail back 
home (lines 173—4). 

In the words of Alcaeus, this federal space was called the temenos 
theon ‘sacred precinct of the gods’ (F 130B.13). It was the designated 
place for celebrating a seasonally recurring festival, described in the 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

words of Alcaeus as the occasion for the seasonally recurring assemblies 
or ‘comings together’ of the people of Lesbos (F 130B.15 sunodoisi; Nagy 
1993: 22). 

This festival featured as its main spectacle the choral singing and 
dancing of the Lesbiades ‘women of Lesbos’, described as ‘exceptional in 
their beauty’ (130B.17 krinnomenai phuari) . The reality of such a festival 
in Lesbos featuring the choral performances of women is independently 
verified by a scholion attached to a passage in the Homeric Iliad (9.130): 
from this scholion we learn that the name of the festival was the Kallisteia, 
which can be translated as ‘pageant of beauty’. In the relevant Iliadic 
passage, as well as elsewhere in the Iliad, there are references to the 
women of Lesbos, described as exceptional in their beauty, who were 
captured by Achilles in the years that preceded the final destruction 
of Troy (9.128-31, 270-73). These direct references in the Iliad can be 
analyzed as indirect references to the festival of the Kallisteia in Lesbos 
(HPC 2§i6, 18). Another reference to the Kallisteia is attested in a 
poem from the Greek Anthology (9.189), which says that this festival 
takes place within the temenos ‘sacred precinct’ of Hera: this festival, 
it also says, was the occasion for choral singing and dancing by the 
women of Lesbos, with Sappho herself pictured as the leader of their 
khoros ‘chorus’ (Page 1955: i68n4). 

Sappho in her songs is conventionally pictured as the lead singer 
of a chorus composed of the women of Lesbos, and she speaks as their 
main choral personality (PH i2§6o). As we see in the Greek Anthology, 
she is figured as the prima donna of this chorus of women who sing and 
dance in the federal space of the people of Lesbos. Sappho’s songs are 
pictured as taking place within this sacred place, marked by the deictic 
marker tuide ‘here’, as we saw earlier in Sappho’s Song 17 (line 7). 

In Song 96 of Sappho, this same federal space of the people of 
Lesbos is once again marked by the deictic marker tuide ‘here’ (line 2) 
as the sacred place of choral performance, and the noun molpa (line 5) 
makes it explicit that the performance takes the form of choral singing 
and dancing. In archaic poetry, the verb for ‘sing and dance in a chorus’ 
is melpesthai (PH I2§29n62 and n64). 

In Song 96 of Sappho, such performance within the common 
choral ground of Lesbos is being nostalgically contrasted with the choral 
performance of a missing prima donna who is imagined as performing 
somewhere else at that same moment: she is now in an alien choral 
ground, as the prima donna of “Lydian women” who are singing and 
dancing in the moonlight (lines 4—9). The wording here refers to a 
seasonally recurring choral event known as the “Dance of the Lydian 


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Maidens,” performed by the local women of the Ionian city of Eph- 
esus at a grand festival held in their own sacred place of singing and 
dancing (PH io§3i). There are comparable “Lydian” themes embed- 
ded in the seasonally recurring choral festivities of Sparta: one such 
event was known as the “Procession of the Lydians” (Plutarch Life of 
Aristides 17.10). And just as Sapphos Song 96 represents the women of 
Lydia as singing and dancing their choral song in a moonlit setting, so 
too are the women of Lesbos singing and dancing their own choral song 
tuide ‘here’ in their own sacred space. There is a comparable setting in 
Song 154 of Sappho, where we see women pictured as poised to sing 
and dance around a bomos ‘altar’ in the moonlight. 

There is another such reference to the common choral ground 
of Lesbos, as marked by the deictic tuide ‘here’, in the most celebrated 
song of Sappho, Song 1: 

You with the varied pattern-woven flowers, immortal 
Aphrodite, | child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I implore you, 

| do not devastate with aches and sorrows, | Mistress, my 
heart. | But come here \ tuide], if ever at any other time | 
hearing my voice from afar, | you heeded me and, leaving 
the palace of your father that is | golden, you came, | and 
golden is the chariot you harnessed; beautiful they were as 
they carried you along, | those swift sparrows, high above 
the dark earth, | swirling with their dense plumage all the 
way down from the sky through the | midst of the aether, | 
and right away they arrived. Then you, O holy one, | smiling 
with your immortal looks, | kept asking what is it once again 
this time [de’ute] that has happened to me and for what reason 
| once again this time [de’ute] do I invoke you, | and what is it 
that I want more than anything to happen | to my frenzied 
heart? “Whom am I once again this time [de’ute] to persuade, 

| setting out to bring her back to your love? Who is doing 
you, | Sappho, wrong? | For if she is fleeing now, soon she 
will pursue. | If she is not taking gifts, soon she will be giving 
them. | If she does not love, soon she will love | against her 
will.” | Come to me even now, and free me from harsh | 
anxieties, and however many things | my heart yearns to get 
done, you do for me. You | become my ally in battle. 

Sappho F 1 

As we will see in due course, Sappho is being pictured here as 
the lead singer of a choral performance. She leads off by praying to 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

Aphrodite to be present, that is, to manifest herself in an epiphany. 
The goddess is invoked from far away in the sky, which is separated 
from the earth by the immeasurably vast space of “aether.” Despite this 
overwhelming sense of separation, Aphrodite makes her presence felt 
in a single moment once she is invoked. The goddess appears, that is, 
she is now present in the sacred space of performance, and her pres- 
ence becomes an epiphany for all those who are present. Then, once 
Aphrodite is present, she exchanges roles with the prima donna who 
figures as the leader of choral performance. In the part of Song i that 
we see enclosed within quotation marks in the visual formatting of 
modern editions (lines 18-24), the first-person “I” of Sappho is now 
replaced by Aphrodite herself, who has been a second-person “you” up 
to this point. We see here an exchange of roles between the first-person 
“I” and the second-person “you.” The first-person “I” now becomes 
Aphrodite, who proceeds to speak in the performing voice of Sappho 
to Sappho herself, who has now become the second-person “you.” 
During Aphrodite’s epiphany inside the sacred space of the people of 
Lesbos, a fusion of identities takes place between the goddess and the 
prima donna who leads the choral performance “here,” that is, in this 
sacred space (PP 97-103). 

Sappho prays to Aphrodite to give her the power that the goddess 
has to make love happen. She prays that she may ‘get done’ whatever it 
is that Aphrodite ‘gets done’ in the active voice of the verb meaning ‘to 
get something done’, telessai (Sappho F 1.26), which is to be contrasted 
with the passive voice telesthen applying to a passive lover who simply 
lets love happen (Sappho F 5.4). To be granted that power is to be the 
lead singer of the song that has the power to make love happen. Such 
is the power of song in the songs of Sappho. 

Within the archaic context of the myths and rituals of the people 
of Lesbos, as framed by the sacred space of their federal precinct “here” 
in the middle ground of their political space, Song 1 of Sappho can be 
seen as a prayer in the sense of a totalizing formula for authorizing choral 
performances of women at the festival of the Kallisteia. The seasonal 
recurrences of the festival are signaled by the triple deployment of the 
adverb de’ute ‘once again this time’ in Sappho’s prayer. Every time in the 
past when Sappho has invoked Aphrodite by offering to her this prayer 
that we now hear, the goddess has heeded the prayer and has manifested 
herself in an ever-new epiphany. And now, once again this time, the 
goddess appears to Sappho, who will once again this time speak for the 
whole chorus as she speaks first for herself and then for Aphrodite and 
then once again this time for herself. 


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In the postclassical era of literary critics like Menander the 
Rhetorician, the description of compositions like Song i of Sappho 
as ‘prayers’ (Sappho T 47) fails to capture the meaning of an act of 
prayer in the context of a choral performance. The modern mind, seiz- 
ing on such descriptions, is quick to infer that such ‘prayers’ must be 
mere literary conceits. This is to ignore the dimension of performance, 
which complements the dimension of composition in the lyric poetry 
of the archaic period. It is also to ignore the ritual background of such 
performance, which complements the mythological background of the 
composition (Yatromanolakis 2003). 

What appears to be a private prayer uttered by Sappho is at the same 
time a public act of worship that is notionally sung and danced by the 
people of Lesbos as represented by a chorus of their women, legendary as 
they are for their beauty, and as led by the figure of Sappho as their prima 
donna. What appears to be the most deeply personal experience of 
Sappho is at the same time the most widely shared communal experience 
of the people of Lesbos. 

Comparable examples can be found in other forms of song in 
the repertoire of Sappho. One such form is the hymenaeus or ‘wedding 
song’. Most revealing in this regard is the standard word that we translate 
as ‘bride’ - numphe (pronounced numpha in the poetic dialect of Lesbos, 
as in Sappho F 116). This word, as we can see from its Homeric usage, 
means not only ‘bride’ but also ‘goddess’ - in the sense of a local goddess 
as worshipped in the rituals of a given locale. And, as we can see from the 
wedding songs of Sappho, the numphe is perceived as both a bride and 
a goddess at the actual moment of the wedding. Similarly, the bride- 
groom is perceived as a god at that same moment. These perceptions 
are mythologized in the description of Hector and Andromache at the 
moment of their wedding in Song 44 of Sappho: the wedded couple 
are called ijkeloi theoi[s (line 21) and theoeikeloi (line 34), both meaning 
‘equal to the gods’. 

It remains to ask what gods are models for wedded couples. In 
the poetics of Sappho, two figures who fill the role of such a divine 
pair are Ares and Aphrodite. In the case of Ares, he is a model for the 
gambros ‘bridegroom’, who is explicitly described as isos Areui ‘equal 
to Ares’ (Sappho F in. 5). In the case of Aphrodite, there are many 
instances of implicit equations of the bride with this goddess: in one 
song, for example, the bridegroom is said to be infused with the divine 
charisma of Aphrodite, evidently by way of his direct contact with the 
bride (Sappho F 112). 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

Typical of such contact with divinity is this celebrated wedding 
song of Sappho: 

He appears [ phainetai ] to me, that one, equal to the gods [isos 
theoisin ] , | that man who, facing you | is seated and, up close, 
that sweet voice of yours | he hears, | and how you laugh 
a laugh that brings desire. It just | makes my heart flutter 
within my breast. | You see, the moment I look at you, right 
then, for me | to make any sound at all won’t work any 
more. | My tongue has a breakdown and a delicate | — all of 
a sudden — fire rushes under my skin. | With my eyes I see 
not a thing, and there is a roar | my ears make. | Sweat pours 
down me and a trembling | seizes all of me; paler than grass 
| am I, and a little short of death | do I appear [phainomai] to 

Sappho F 31 , first four of five stanzas 

It is said that the bridegroom phainetai ‘appears’ to be isos theoisin 
‘equal to the gods’. Appearances become realities, however, since phaine- 
tai means not only ‘he appears’ but also ‘he is manifested in an epiphany’, 
and this epiphany is felt as real (PH 7§2nio). In the internal logic of 
this song, seeing the bridegroom as a god for a moment is just as real 
as seeing Sappho as a goddess for a moment in the logic of Song 1 of 

The sense of reality is evident in the wording we have just seen, 
phainetai moi kenos isos theoisin \ emmen’ oner ‘he appears [ phainetai ] to 
me, that one, equal to the gods, | the man who. . . . ’. The first-person 
moi here in Song 31 of Sappho refers to the speaker, who is “Sappho.” 
In another song of Sappho, we find the wording phainetai woi kenos isos 
theoisin ‘he appears [phainetai] to her, that one, equal to the gods’ (F 165). 
In this song, the third-person woi ‘to her’ may perhaps refer to the 
bride. Or perhaps the speaker of this wording is imagined as Aphrodite 

In the first of these two songs of Sappho (F 31), the subjectivity is 
linked to the first-person speaker, who is the vicarious participant; in 
the second song (F 165), on the other hand, the subjectivity is linked to 
the third person, who is the immediate participant. There is a shifting of 
referents that accompanies the shifting of pronouns from “I” to “she.” 
We saw another shifting of referents in Song 1 of Sappho, from “you” 
to “I.” In that case, the shift in the ownership of pronouns involves the 


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second-person “you” of Aphrodite and the first-person “I” of Sappho. 
During the epiphany of Aphrodite, Sappho exchanges identities with 
the goddess herself It is a moment of personal fusion with Aphrodite. 
Similarly in the wedding song (F 31), the vicariousness of Sappho links 
the “I” with the “you” of the bride. 

The exchange between the “I” and the “you” of Sappho and 
Aphrodite in Song 1 is reflected also in the wording of another song of 
Sappho (F 159), where Aphrodite is imagined once again as speaking 
to Sappho and addressing her by name. In yet another song of Sappho 
(F 134), the speaker says she is dreaming she has a dialogue ( dialegesthai ) 
with Aphrodite. 

The erotic experience shared by the “he” who is the bridegroom 
and by the “you” who is the bride in Song 31 of Sappho is communalized 
in the reaction of the “I” who figures as the vicarious participant in the 
experience. And this reaction is an epiphany in itself. In this song, the 
subjectivity is linked to the first-person speaker who is Sappho. When 
we hear phainetai moi kenos isos theoisin ‘he appears [ phainetai \ to me, 
that one, equal to the gods’, it is the first-person speaker who is feeling 
the erotic sensations experienced by the bride in the second person 
and by the bridegroom in the third person. At the climax of the erotic 
experience as spoken by the first-person speaker, she says about her 
feelings: tethnaken d’oligo ’pideues phainom’ emautai ‘and a little short of 
death | do I appear [ phainomai ] to myself.’ The verb phainomai ‘I appear’ 
here signals again an epiphany - an epiphany that manifests itself to the 
self, to the speaking “I.” 

This appearance of the self to the self, as an epiphany, signals 
the divine presence of Aphrodite. In one sense, then, what is seen is 
the epiphany of Aphrodite, since she is the goddess of the occasion. In 
another sense, however, what is seen is the epiphany of the bride, whose 
identity fuses with that of Aphrodite at the moment of her wedding. 
And, in still another sense, what is seen is the epiphany of the speaking 
“I” who identifies with Aphrodite by virtue of identifying with the 
“you” of the bride who is Aphrodite at this very moment. For Sappho, 
then, what is seen is an auto-epiphany. 

The epiphany of Song 31 induces a near-death experience, and 
such a stylized personal death is modeled on a realized mythical death. 
As we will see, death in myth is a prototype for whatever it is that the 
first-person speaker experiences vicariously in her interaction with the 
second-person bride and with the third-person bridegroom, who are 
respectively the vision of Aphrodite and the corresponding vision of 


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To start with the third person, it is essential to recall that the 
bridegroom is visualized as isos Areui ‘equal to Ares’ in another song 
of Sappho (F hi. 5). Comparable to the bridegroom who gets married 
in lyric is the warrior who gets killed in epic. As we will see, he too 
is visualized as isos Arei ‘equal to Ares’. And, as we will also see, the 
bridegroom can be visualized as Achilles himself in the songs of Sappho. 

In the Homeric Iliad, warriors are conventionally called the thera- 
pontes of Ares as the god of war (2. no, 6.67, 15.733, 19.78). This word 
therapon (plural therapontes) means both ‘attendant’ and ‘ritual substitute’ 
in epic. When a warrior is killed in war, he becomes a ‘ritual substi- 
tute’ who dies for Ares by becoming identical to the war god at the 
moment of death; then, after death, the warrior is eligible to become 
a cult hero who serves as a sacralized ‘attendant’ of the war god (BA 
[— Nagy 1979] i7§§5~ 6). As an epic warrior, Achilles is a therapon 
‘ritual substitute’ for Ares by virtue of becoming identical to the war 
god at the moment of death. In the Iliad, however, this relationship 
between Achilles and Ares is expressed only by way of an intermediary, 
who is Patroklos. This warrior is described not as the therapon of Ares 
but rather as the therapon of Achilles, and, as such, he is not only that 
hero’s ‘attendant’ but also his ‘ritual substitute’, since he actually dies for 
Achilles (BA I7§§5~ 6). So Achilles dies only indirectly as the therapon of 
Ares through the intermediacy of Patroklos, who dies as the therapon of 

As an epic warrior, Achilles also qualifies as isos Arei ‘equal to 
Ares’. This description suits Achilles in the Iliad - though it applies to 
him only vicariously by way of Patroklos, who takes upon himself the 
role of a ritual substitute for Achilles. Patroklos is actually called isos Arei 
(11 .604) at the exact moment when the story of his fatal impersonation 
of Achilles begins (BA2§8, I7§5). 

So a missing link for understanding Song 31 of Sappho is the vision 
of the hero Achilles as a model warrior at the moment of his death in 
epic, when he, too, like the model bridegroom in lyric, is ‘equal to 
Ares’. This link is verified by ancient sources, which make it explicit 
that Sappho conventionally imagined the model bridegroom as Achilles 
himself (F 105 b). 

Such a lyric convention in the songs of Sappho can be explained as 
an organic correlation of myth and ritual. In the logic of myth, Achilles 
never becomes a model husband because War personified cuts him down 
like a flower in the bloom of his youth. In the logic of ritual, on the 
other hand, Achilles is the perfect model for a bridegroom precisely 
because he is cut down in war and thus cannot ever became a husband. 


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For love to find its self-expression in the ritual of a wedding, it needs 
someone to die for love. 

Such a ritual need is expressed in the relationship of Eros, personi- 
fied as the god of erotic love, with Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love. 
As we see from the imagined dialogue between Sappho and Aphrodite 
in a song of Sappho mentioned earlier, the goddess says in her own 
words that Eros is her therapon (F 159). As in epic, this word in lyric 
means not only ‘attendant’ but also ‘ritual substitute’, that is, some- 
one who ritually dies for the sake of the one he attends. Pictured as a 
pubescent (not prepubescent) boy, Eros is doomed to die for the sake 
of Aphrodite. In the poetics of Sappho, as later ancient sources tell us 
(F 172), the death of erotic Love personified is a most persistent theme. 

The death of Eros could be pictured as a martial death resulting 
from the warfare of love. We see clearly the language of love as war in 
Song 1 of Sappho, where Aphrodite is invoked in prayer to become a 
summakhos ‘ally in battle’ for Sappho in speaking the words of lyric love 
poetry (1.28). Conversely, Sappho as the speaker of lyric love poetry is 
offering herself as an ‘ally in battle’ for Aphrodite, thus crossing over 
into the themes of epic. Similarly in the Iliad, Aphrodite crosses over 
into the themes of epic by intervening in the epic action — and she gets 
wounded in doing so, as if she were a mortal (5.327-54). 

Parallel to the wounding of the goddess Aphrodite are the two 
woundings of the god Ares in the Iliad: he too gets wounded as if he 
were a mortal (5.855-63, 21.401-8). More than that, the woundings 
of Ares are in both cases described as mortal woundings, and the Iliad 
actually shows Ares in the act of going through the motions of a stylized 
martial death. Such an epic experience is for Ares a mock death (EH [= 
Nagy 2005] §76) . Similarly, the lyric experience of Eros in dying for love 
can be viewed as a mock death, and such ritualized mockery is typical 
of “divine burlesque,” which represents one of the oldest features of 
Greek myth. There are striking parallels to be found in Near Eastern 
sources dating back to the second millennium BCE (Burkert i960: 

The stylized death of the god Ares in the Iliad is an extreme case of 
divine mirroring: the immortal god of war gets involved not only in the 
martial actions of heroes but even in their martial deaths. And he gets 
so involved because god and hero mirror each other at the moment of 
a hero’s death, which is the climax of the inherent antagonism between 
them (EH §§105, 108, no, 115). 

At the moment when he dies a warrior’s death in place of Achilles, 
Patroklos is vicariously experiencing such a moment of mirroring 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

between Achilles as warrior and Ares as god of warriors: that is why 
Patroklos looks just like Ares at that moment (BA 2§8, I7§5) - 

As mutual antagonists, the hero and the god match each other in 
life as well as in death. In the case of Achilles, as we see from surviving 
traces in the Epic Cycle, this hero was imagined as an irresistible lover by 
lovelorn girls hoping to make him their husband (EH §56). In the case 
of Ares, as we see from the second song ofDemodocus in the Homeric 
Odyssey, this god is imagined as an irresistible lover by the goddess of 
sexuality herself, Aphrodite (8.266-366). 

Among other related characteristics shared by the hero Achilles 
and the god Ares is their superhuman speed. In the case of Achilles, 
his success in war is closely connected with the use of such epithets as 
podokes ‘swift-footed’ in the Iliad. In the case of Ares, his own swiftness 
of foot is pictured as ideal for success in courtship as well as in warfare. In 
the song ofDemodocus about the love affair of Ares and Aphrodite in 
the Odyssey, we find that one of the war god’s most irresistible attributes 
is his nimbleness of foot in choral lyric dancing (HPC i§i7). And yet, 
despite his irresistible attractiveness in courting Aphrodite, the dashing 
young Ares will never marry. Like the dashing young Achilles, Ares is 
eternally the bridegroom and never the husband. 

Having started with the third-person bridegroom in Song 31 of 
Sappho, I now continue with the second-person bride. Just as the bride- 
groom looks like a local cult hero, so also the bride looks like a local cult 
heroine. In Aeolic traditions, such heroines figured in myths about the 
conquests of Achilles - not only martial but also amorous conquests - 
in the years that preceded the destruction of Troy. These myths told of 
beautiful Aeolic girls of Asia Minor and the outlying island of Lesbos 
who had once been immune to love and thus unreachable to their frus- 
trated suitors. But then they fall helplessly in love with Achilles — that 
dashing young Aeolic hero who had sailed across the sea from his home 
in Hellas to attack their people (HPC 2§§7, 18). 

Comparable to these once-unreachable Aeolic girls is a prize apple, 
unreachable to the apple-pickers, which “blushes” enticingly from the 
heights of a “shooter-branch” in a song of Sappho (F 105a; on the culti- 
vation of apples in ancient and modern Lesbos, see Mason 2004). It is no 
coincidence that the brides of Sappho’s songs are conventionally com- 
pared to apples (F 105b). Like Sappho’s prize apple, these contemporary 
brides are imagined as unreachable. But they are unreachable only up to 
the moment when they take the place of Aeolic heroines who had once 
upon a time fallen in love with Achilles, that eternal bridegroom. These 
Aeolic girls of the heroic past are imagined as throwing themselves at 


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Achilles. That is, they throw a metonymic extension of themselves at 
Achilles by throwing an apple at him: such a theme is attested in the bit- 
tersweet story of a lovelorn girl from the Aeolic city of Pedasos (Hesiod 
F 214; BA 7§29n6). In the logic of myth, the love felt by such heroines 
is doomed from the start, and, in the end, they die for their love. In the 
logic of ritual, however, that same love promises to be requited. Such 
is the love expressed by girls pictured in the act of throwing apples at 
their prospective lovers in the songs of Sappho (F 214A). 

Just as the hero Achilles stands in for a god at moments that center 
on the ritual of a wedding, so also various Aeolic heroines can stand in 
for a goddess. A case in point is the captive woman Briseis in the Iliad, 
who is overtly associated with the women of Lesbos whom Achilles 
captured as beauty-prizes in the years that preceded the destruction of 
Troy (9.128-31, 270-73; 19.245-6). The Iliad quotes, as it were, Bri- 
seis in the act of singing a choral lyric song of lament for the death of 
Patroklos (19.287-300); this quotation ofBriseis, along with the framing 
narrative concerning the antiphonal response of the women attending 
Briseis (19. 301-2), reenacts most accurately the morphology of a gen- 
uine choral lyric lament (Due 2002: 70—71; HPC 2§ i 8). As she begins 
to sing her choral lyric song of lament for Patroklos, Briseis is likened 
to Aphrodite (19.282). In her lament, Briseis sings her bittersweet sor- 
row not only over the death of Patroklos but also over the death of 
her own fondest hope: when he was alive, Patroklos had promised to 
arrange for her a marriage to Achilles, but, now that he is dead, the 
hope of that promise is gone forever (19.295-300). So the Iliad pic- 
tures Patroklos as a ritual substitute for Achilles in courtship as well as 
in war. 

In the logic of myth, from what we have seen so far, a hero’s iden- 
tity at the moment of death can merge with a god’s identity. In the logic 
of ritual, on the other hand, such a merger of identity leads only to a 
stylized death (PP 87-97). Death in ritual is not physical but psychic. 
For example, from crosscultural surveys of rituals of initiation as prac- 
ticed in traditional societies around the world, it becomes evident that 
initiands who are identified with divinities at the moment of initiation 
are imagined as dying to their old selves as members of a given age-class 
and being reborn to their new selves as members of the next age-class 
(PP 101-3). 

In the ritual of a wedding as celebrated by the songs of Sappho, 
there is the prospect of a happy ending as the identity of the Aeolic 
numpha ‘bride’ shifts from girl to goddess to woman. In the process of 
becoming a goddess for a moment, the bride dies to her old self as a 


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girl and is reborn to her new self as a woman. In the corresponding 
myth, by contrast, there is the prospect of a sad but compellingly erotic 
ending to the story. The bride-to-be will never get married to the 
eternal bridegroom, imagined as Achilles. 

The death of Achilles himself in war is the climax of his erotic 
charisma. In general, the martial death of heroes is eroticized as the 
beautiful death, la belle mort ; even the body of the dead hero is eroti- 
cized - as the beautiful corpse, le beau mort (Tyrtaeus F io; Vernant 1982; 
HC 4§ i 8, HPC 2§24). Achilles is pictured as a beau mort in the Iliad, 
as when the goddess Thetis and her fellow Nereids lament the future 
death of her beloved son in war; in this context, the hero is compared 
to a beautiful plant that dies in full bloom (18.54—60; BA io§ii). In a 
song of Sappho (F 105c), we see a comparable image of a beautiful plant 
at the moment of death (also comparable is the image of a bridegroom 
as a beautiful plant in F 115). 

Such themes of eroticized death are relevant to the near-death 
experience of the “I” in Song 31 of Sappho. Having started with 
the third-person bridegroom in this song and having continued with 
the second-person bride, I conclude with this first-person speaker. The 
woman who speaks in the first person here is vicariously speaking for the 
whole group that attends the wedding. The whole group is notionally 
participating in the stylized deaths of the male and the female initiands — 
in this case, of the bridegroom and the bride. 

The stylized death of the bridegroom in a wedding as described 
by Sappho matches the realized death of Achilles in war. Premarital 
death in ritual marks the transition from bridegroom to husband, while 
martial death in myth marks an eternal deferral of such a transition. 
By dying in war, Achilles becomes the very picture of the ultimate 
bridegroom in eternally suspended animation, forever on the verge of 
marrying. In the logic of ritual, what is needed for female initiands, 
especially for brides, is such an eternal bridegroom (Due 2006: 82-3). 
A comparable model of unfulfilled desire and unrequited love is the 
hero Hippolytus in the Hippolytus of Euripides: at the end of this drama 
(1423-30), we find an anthropologically accurate description of a ritual 
of female initiation featuring a chorus of girls performing a lament 
for the death of Hippolytus as their local cult hero (PP 94-6) . As this 
drama illustrates, the identity of the female initiand depends on the 
program, as it were, of the ritual of initiation. The nuptial Aphrodite 
and the prenuptial/postnuptial Artemis reveal different phases of erotic 
engagement in the life cycle of a woman, determining when she is 
attainable — and when she is unattainable. 


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In compensation for his being cut down in the bloom of his youth, 
Achilles is destined to have a kleos ‘glory’ that is aphthiton ‘unwilting’: 
that is what the hero’s mother foretells for him, as Achilles himself is 
quoted as saying ( Iliad 9.413). The word kleos expresses not only the idea 
of prestige as conveyed by the translation ‘glory’ but also the idea of a 
medium that confers this prestige (BA i§§2— 4). And this medium of kleos is 
not only epic, as represented by the Homeric Iliad, but also lyric, as best 
represented in the historical period by the poet Pindar. In the praise 
poetry of Pindar, the poet proudly proclaims his mastery of the prestige 
conferred by kleos (as in Nemean 7.61-3; PH 6§3). As for the word 
aphthiton ‘unwilting’, it is used as an epithet of kleos not only in epic but 
also in lyric, as we see from the songs of Sappho (F 44.4) and Ibycus 
(F 282.47). This epithet expresses the idea that the medium of kleos is 
a metaphorical flower that will never stop blossoming. As the words of 
a song by Pindar predict, the hero who is glorified by the kleos will die 
and will thus stop blossoming, that is, he will ‘wilt’, phthinein, but the 
medium that conveys the message of death will never wilt: that medium 
is pictured as a choral lyric song eternally sung by the Muses as they 
lament the beautiful wilted flower that is Achilles, the quintessential beau 
mart ( Isthmian 8.56a-62; PH 7§6). This song of the Muses is parallel to 
the choral lyric song that is sung by Thetis accompanied by her fellow 
Nereids as they lament in the Iliad the future death of her beloved son: 
here again, as we saw earlier, Achilles is figured as a beautiful flower cut 
down in full bloom (18.54-60; BA io§n). In the Odyssey, we find a 
retrospective description of the lament sung by Thetis and her fellow 
Nereids at the actual funeral of Achilles, followed by the lament of the 
Muses themselves (24.58-59, 60-62). 

The idea of kleos aphthiton ‘unwilting glory’ as conferred by poetry 
applies not only to the epic theme of a hero’s death in war, as in the 
case of Achilles in the Iliad (9.413), but also to the lyric theme of a 
wedding, as in the case of Hector as bridegroom and Andromache as 
bride in Song 44 of Sappho (line 4). The expression kleos aphthiton 
links the doomed warrior in epic with the wedded couple in lyric. 
Parallel to the linking effected by this expression is the linking effected 
by the god Apollo himself: he too links Achilles in epic with Hector 
and Andromache in lyric. The celebrants at the wedding in Song 44 
of Sappho sing Apollo by invoking his epithet Paean ( Padn in the local 
dialect) when they celebrate Hector and Andromache as bridegroom 
and bride (line 33). To sing a paean is to sing a song from Lesbos, as 
we see from the wording of Archilochus (F 12 1). To sing a paean in the 
Iliad is to sing Apollo as Paean, though Paean is a god in his own right 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

in more archaizing contexts of the Iliad (as at 5.401 and 5.899—901). 
Elsewhere in the Iliad, Achilles calls on the Achaeans to sing a paean, 
that is, to sing Apollo as Paean when they celebrate the death of Hector 
in war (22.391). 

There are also other linkings of the doomed warrior in epic with 
the wedded couple in lyric. Achilles is theoeikelos ‘just like the gods’ as a 
warrior in the Iliad (1.131, 23 .155), and so too Hector and Andromache 
as bridegroom and bride are theoeikeloi just like the gods’ at the moment 
of their wedding in Song 44 of Sappho (at line 34; also i]keloi theoi[s just 
like the gods’ at line 21). Now Achilles is in fact the only recipient 
of the epithet theoeikelos in the Homeric Iliad. So the warrior who 
kills Hector attracts the same epithet in epic that Hector attracts in 

It remains to ask about the god with whom Achilles is identified 
in epic and with whom Hector and Andromache are identified in lyric. 
For this god, epic and lyric are undifferentiated, just as the kleos aphthiton 
of Achilles as warrior in epic is undifferentiated from the kleos aphthiton 
of Hector and Andromache as bridegroom and bride in lyric. This god 
is Apollo. 

At the moment of his death, the hero Achilles is destined to con- 
front not only the god Ares as the generic divine antagonist of warriors 
but also the god Apollo as his own personal divine antagonist. This 
personalized destiny of Achilles is explicit in the Epic Cycle, that is, in 
the Aithiopis, but only implicit in the Iliad, where Patroklos substitutes 
for Achilles in his antagonism with Apollo just as he substitutes for him 
in his antagonism with Ares. 

What makes this destiny of Achilles so personalized is his special 
connection with poetry, a medium signaled as kleos aphthiton ‘unwilting 
glory’. The god of this medium is Apollo, who is the god of poetry. 
And this poetry is conceived as lyric. To put it another way, this poetry is 
a form of epic that is not yet differentiated from lyric (PH i2§§44 — 5) . Apollo is 
the god of an older form of epic that is still sung to the accompaniment 
of the lyre. 

Correspondingly, Achilles is the hero of such an older form of 
epic. In this role, he is imagined as looking exactly like Apollo — beard- 
less and wearing long hair. Like Apollo, Achilles is the essence of a 
beautiful promise in the making, of a telos or ‘fulfillment’ realized only 
in performance, only when the song is fully performed (HTL [= Nagy 
2004b] 138-43). There is a visual signature of this shared role of god and 
hero in the Iliad. Achilles, like Apollo, is pictured in this epic as singing 
to the tune of a lyre that he himself is playing (9.186—9). Achilles had 


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plundered this lyre from the Aeolic city of Thebe, ruled by the king 
Eetion (9.186—9), whom he killed when he captured that city — and 
who was the father of that greatest singer of lamentations in the Iliad, 
Andromache (6.414—16). What Achilles sings to the tune of this Aeolic 
lyre is an echo of the loves and bittersweet sorrows heard in lyric song 
(HPC 2 §17). An example of such lyric in historical times is the song 
of Sappho about the wedding of Hector and Andromache (F 44): the 
lyric kleos aphthiton ‘unwilting glory’ of this Aeolic song (F 44.4) is 
cognate with the epic kleos aphthiton ‘unwilting glory’ that Achilles is 
promised in the Iliad (9.413), which is metonymically linked with the 
epic klea andron ‘glories of heroes’ that Achilles is singing on the Aeolic 
lyre (9.189). 

Such a lyrical image of Achilles evokes a correspondingly lyrical 
image of Apollo. Even in epic, this god is conventionally pictured as a 
lyric personality. In fact, Apollo controls the medium of lyric, of choral 
lyric. A prime example is the conventional description of Apollo as the 
Mous(h)egetes, that is, as the choral leader of the Muses (PH 12529). Such 
a description is attested in lyric (an example is Song 208 of Sappho) and 
even in epic ( Iliad 1.603—4). Apollo accompanies himself on the lyre as 
he sings and dances, while the Muses in the chorus also sing and dance 
(. Homeric Hymn to Hermes 475-6). 

The god Apollo controls not only lyric. He controls all song and 
poetry, and he is ultimately in control of all occasions for the perfor- 
mance of song and poetry. In this overarching role, he embodies the 
authority of poets, that is, of craftsmen who compose song and poetry. 
This authority transcends such categories as epic and lyric. And it tran- 
scends the genres that figure as subcategories of epic and lyric, as well 
as the occasions that shape those genres. This authority is linked to the 
authorship of song and poetry. 

An ancient term that refers to the exercising of such divine author- 
ity and authorship in performance is exarkhein (as in Archilochus F 120), 
which can be pragmatically translated this way: ‘to emerge [in the act of 
performance] as the choral leader’; Aristotle uses the participle exarkhon 
(Poetics 1449a 10— 11) in building his evolutionary model of the emer- 
gent choral leader. The image of Apollo in choral lyric performance, in 
the act of singing and dancing as he accompanies himself on the lyre, 
captures the essence of the exarkhon as the ‘emergent choral leader’. As 
the divine exarkhon, Apollo is the source of authority for the making of 
song and poetry. As for human exarkhontes in the act of performance, 
they are the makers of this song and poetry. In effect, they are historical 
authors in the making (HC 2§9). 


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An ancient term that refers to the medium of exercising such 
authority and authorship is the noun humnos, which is usually translated 
by way of a word derived from it, ‘hymn’. To understand humnos merely 
as ‘hymn’ in the current sense of the word is inadequate, however, since 
this sense conveys not much more than a mere literary conceit. In the 
ancient sense of the term, however, as attested in both epic and lyric, 
the humnos is a notionally perfect beginning of any poetic composition 
because it is a notionally perfect invocation of the god who presides 
over the occasion of performing that composition. The god invoked in 
the humnos absolutizes not only the humnos but also everything that the 
humnos introduces. Moreover, the totality of everything introduced by 
the humnos is then subsumed by the humnos itself, which is totalizing 
by virtue of being absolutely authoritative. When a humnos calls itself a 
humnos, the word refers not only to the humnos but also to everything 
in the performance that follows the humnos (HC 2§§2~4). 

The immediate referent of the humnos is the god or goddess to 
whom the speaker prays on a given occasion of performance. As the 
absolute authority who is being invoked by the prayer, that god or god- 
dess makes the performance absolutely authoritative. But the referent 
of the humnos is also the one who reenacts the god or goddess by virtue 
of performing the humnos. The technical term for such reenactment is 
mimesis (PP 54-58). That is what we see happening in Song 1 of Sappho. 
At the climax of her performance as a prima donna, Sappho notionally 
becomes Aphrodite when she sings with the voice of the goddess — and 
with the authority of the goddess. Sappho herself, by speaking with the 
voice of the speaker in the humnos, becomes absolutely authoritative 
(PP 87-103). 

And to be authoritative in this way requires a group to respond to 
the authority of the speaker. That group is ideally a chorus of singers and 
dancers, and, by extension, the entire community of those attending the 
singing and dancing. As noted before, such authority is played out in the 
dramatized relationship between the khoros ‘chorus’ and a highlighted 
khoregos ‘leader of the chorus’, as mythologized in the relationship of the 
Muses to Apollo as their choral leader (PH i2§2 9). Apollo shows the way 
to celebrate a god in a humnos by performing in his own right the perfect 
performance of such a celebration. 

To repeat, the primary referent of the humnos is the given divinity 
who presides over the given festival. The primary participant in the 
reference system of the humnos is the human performer who reenacts 
a given divine figure in the sacred moment of performance. There 
is a fusion of identities in that sacred moment, and this fusion is the 


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essence of the humnos. That is why the humnos becomes the instrument 
of authority and authorization and authorship. Such is the theology, as 
it were, of the humnos. And such is the theology of the transcendent 
author, which extends into the reality of the historical author. 

We have already seen such a historical author in the personalized 
figure of the prima donna in Song i of Sappho, where the author is 
actually named. Or, more precisely, Aphrodite names the author, autho- 
rizes her, as Sappho. As the khoregos ‘leader of the chorus’, Sappho is 
notionally equated with and thus authorized by the goddess she invokes 
in her prayer, which is the humnos she performs. 

Regarding examples of ritual occasions for choral performance, 
I have concentrated so far on the wedding. But there are also many 
other such occasions having to do with various forms of initiation, that 
is, with formal transitions from one social status to another, including 
political inaugurations of various kinds. It is often difficult to pinpoint 
the historical settings of such occasions. Some of them, such as wed- 
dings, are ad hoc, while others seem to be seasonally recurrent, timed 
to coincide with festivals. 

Song i of Sappho may be an example of a recurrent occasion: it 
seems to be an inaugural humnos that showcases the Panhellenic prestige 
of the seasonally recurring festival of the Kallisteia in the federal space of 
Lesbos. Another such example is Song i of Aleman, which highlights 
the double debut of two female khoregoi ‘chorus-leaders’ stemming from 
the two royal lineages of the dual kingship of Sparta (PH I2§§ 17—25). 
The two Spartan debutantes as celebrated in Song 1 of Aleman are in 
many ways analogous to the brides of Lesbos as celebrated in the songs 
of Sappho: for example, the girls from Sparta are compared to horses 
(Aleman 1.45-54) in much the same way as a bride from Lesbos is 
compared to a haughty mare (Sappho F 156 via Gregorios of Corinth: 
also with reference to Anacreon) — or as a bridegroom is compared to 
a prize-winning steed (Sappho F 194A). 

In Song 1 of Aleman, the two female khoregoi ‘chorus-leaders’ 
perform as surrogates of the Leukippides ‘Shining Horses’, envisioned 
as twin female celestial divinities (PH I2§§i9— 20). There are analogous 
celestial associations in the songs of Sappho. We have already seen how 
her identification with Aphrodite makes it possible for Sappho’s songs 
to make personalized contact with the roles of the goddess in the world 
of myth. One of these roles is the identification of Aphrodite with 
the planet Venus, which is imagined as the celestial force that makes 
the sun rise (GM [= Nagy 1990b] 258). Accordingly, Sappho imagines 
herself as falling in love with a hero called Phaon just as the goddess 


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Aphrodite in her role as the planet Venus falls in love with the same 
hero. The name Phaon, stemming from the dialect of Lesbos, is the 
local Aeolic equivalent of phaethon ‘shining’, which is the epithet of the 
sun in Homeric diction (PP 90, 102— 103). 

Sappho not only identifies with Aphrodite in loving this hero 
Phaon: she can even speak with the voice of Aphrodite in addressing 
Phaon (T 19), just as she speaks with the voice of Aphrodite when the 
goddess is pictured as speaking to her in Song 1 . In speaking to Phaon, 
as also in speaking to Aphrodite, Sappho is authorized by Aphrodite. 
And she thereby authorizes herself. Just as Aphrodite undergoes a mock 
death by executing a “lover’s leap” from the heights of a white rock into 
the dark sea below for the love of Phaon, so also Sappho can picture 
herself as undergoing an erotic death for the love of the same solar 
hero (T 23). The myth tells how Aphrodite disguised herself as an old 
woman and persuaded the old ferryman Phaon to ferry her across a 
strait separating the mainland of Asia Minor from the island of Lesbos 
(Sappho F 211). Sappho pictures herself in the place of Aphrodite as the 
goddess turns young again while making Phaon young as well — in fond 
hopes of turning him into her lover. Similar themes recur elsewhere, as 
in a mention of Eos the goddess of dawn and her mortal lover Tithonus 
(Sappho F 58). 

Despite such hopeful projections of divine identity, the gap 
between the divine and the human can lead to bittersweet feelings 
of sadness. Such is the theme of a song of Sappho (F 16 8B) that pic- 
tures the Moon, personified as the local Aeolic goddess Selanna (Ionic 
Selene ), at the moment when it sets beneath the horizon: the goddess 
is now on her way to meet the beautiful hero Endymion in his secret 
lair, and there she will sleep with him. We know of the tryst of Selanna 
with Endymion from a second such song of Sappho (F 199). In the 
first song (F 168B), the tryst of the goddess with the beautiful hero is 
signaled by the particle men, to be answered by the contrastive particle 
de highlighting the sad loneliness of the lamenting first-person speaker 
as she says ego de mom katheudd ‘but I sleep alone’ (Clay 1970). Such 
feelings of sadness are balanced against hopes of identification with the 
celestial realm: as we saw in a third song of Sappho, the prima donna 
of an all-night choral lyric performance in the moonlight is pictured as 
looking just like the moon (F 96.7—9). In that moment, she is identical 
to the goddess Selanna (F 96.4-6 se theai s’ikelan arignotai ). 

The songs of the queenly Sappho, in all their celestial loveliness, 
appear worlds apart from the songs of the down-to-earth Alcaeus, which 
appear downright profane by comparison. The basic context of his 


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songs is the sumposion ‘symposium’, which is conventionally understood 
to be a drinking party organized by a group of like-minded (h)etairoi 
‘comrades’ who sing drinking songs. In terms of such an understanding, 
Alcaeus is a historical personality who sings in the context of such a 
group (Rosier 1980). In the symposium, the (h)etairoi act out in their 
songs a whole gamut of social and antisocial behavior, good and bad 
characters, noble and base feelings. In so doing, they replay the history 
and even the prehistory of their community. 

The medium of these drinking songs shows both positive and neg- 
ative ways of speaking, what Aristotle calls en-komion and psogos, loosely 
translated as ‘praise’ and ‘blame’ ( Poetics I448b27; BA 14 §§1-5). Domi- 
nant are the themes of peace and war, statesmanship and factional strife, 
the joys of civic solidarity and the sorrows, hatreds, and angers of alien- 
ation culminating in civic exile. In brief, the medium of such drinking 
songs recaptures the look and feel ofpolitical rhetoric in the polis or ‘city 
state’. If you removed the meter from the drinking songs of Alcaeus, says 
Dionysius of Halicarnassus (On Imitation 42if), what you would have 
left over is political rhetoric pure and simple (Alcaeus T 20). In terms 
of this observation, the message of this medium is the medium itself. 

It is as if we were looking at some vast unbridgeable gap separat- 
ing these songs of Alcaeus from the songs of Sappho. And the poetry 
attributed to Alcaeus even draws attention to such a gap. In one song 
of Alcaeus (F 384), he is pictured as addressing Sappho in words fit for 
a divine queen: ioplok' agna mellikhomeide Sapphoi ‘you with strands of 
hair in violet, O holy [ (h)agna] one, you with the honey-sweet smile, O 
Sappho!’. And the wording is actually fit for a goddess. For example, the 
epithet (h)agna ‘holy’ is applied to the goddess Athena (Alcaeus F 298 . 17) 
and to the Kharites ‘Graces’ as goddesses (Sappho F 53.1, 103.8; Alcaeus 
F 386.1). As for the epithet ioplokos ‘with strands of hair in violet’, it is 
applied as a generic epithet to the Muses themselves (Bacchylides 3.17). 

Behind the appearances of such disconnectedness between the 
songs of Alcaeus and Sappho is a basic pattern of connectedness in both 
form and content. This pattern is a matter of symmetry. In archaic Greek 
poetry, symmetry is achieved by balancing two opposing members of a 
binary opposition, so that one member is marked and the other member 
is unmarked; while the marked member is exclusive of the unmarked, the 
unmarked member is inclusive of the marked, serving as the actual basis 
of inclusion (PH o§i5). Such a description suits the working relation- 
ship between the profane and the sacred in the songs of Alcaeus and 
Sappho. What is sacred about these songs is the divine basis of their 
performance in a festive setting, that is, at festivals sacred to gods. What 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

is profane about these songs is the human basis of what they express in 
that same setting. We see in these songs genuine expressions of human 
experiences, such as feelings of love, hate, anger, fear, and pity. These 
experiences, though they are unmarked in everyday settings, are marked 
in festive settings. In other words, the symmetry of the profane and the 
sacred in the songs of Alcaeus and Sappho is a matter of balancing the 
profane as the marked member against the sacred as the unmarked mem- 
ber in their opposition to each other; while the profane is exclusive of 
the sacred, the sacred is inclusive of the profane, serving as the actual 
basis of inclusion. 

On the island of Lesbos, the sacred space ofMesson was the festive 
context in which this symmetry of the profane and the sacred could be 
played out. It was here at Messon that the sacred could serve as the basis 
for including the profane. Not only the songs of Sappho, which tended 
toward the sacred side of the symmetry, were marked by the “here” 
that was Messon. So too the songs of Alcaeus, which tended toward the 
profane side, were marked by the same “here.” A case in point is a song 
of Alcaeus that begins as a formal hymn to the Dioskouroi, where the 
divine twins are formally invoked to come “here,” that is, to the place 
where the song is being performed (F 34.1). 

Thus even the songs of Alcaeus, which appear to represent the 
profane side of the symmetry between the profane and the sacred, are 
worthy of inauguration by way of a humnos, which as we have seen 
sacralizes not only the beginning of performance but also whatever 
follows the beginning all the way to the end. Whatever that may be 
includes the drinking song at the symposium. And the god who pre- 
sides over the drinking at the symposium and over the drinking songs 
performed there is Dionysus, whose essence is not only sympotic but 
also mimetic. After all, Dionysus is not only the god who presides over 
the drinking of wine in a symposium: he is also the god of theater. 
Conversely, Dionysus is not only the god of mimesis in the theater (PH 
i 3§§6-46): he is also the god of mimesis in the symposium (PP 218). 

The mimetic essence of Dionysus is most evident in his role as 
the presiding god of the City Dionysia of Athens, which must be seen 
as a parallel to his role as the presiding god of the symposium. The 
symposium of Dionysus, like the theater of Dionysus, is a stage for 
mimesis. The stage that is the symposium is the notional “here” that 
marks the place of performance for the songs of Alcaeus. This “here” 
is a festive place, that is, the sacred space of a festival. Such a place is the 
federal district ofMesson in Lesbos, which as we have seen is sacred to 
Dionysus as well as to Hera and to Zeus. 


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In the state of mind that is this sacred space ofMesson, there are two 
kinds of mimesis represented symmetrically by the choral performances 
of Sappho and by the sympotic performances of Alcaeus. Each of these 
two figures plays out a variety of roles. For their primary roles they 
speak with the authority of the lead singer, of the author in the making. 
In these roles, the “I” represents the speaker of the inaugurating humnos 
who is speaking by way of praying to a presiding divinity. Or the “I” 
may represent that divinity speaking to the lead singer or even to the 
whole group attending and participating in the performance of the 
song. Beyond this incipient authorial role, the “I” of both Sappho and 
Alcaeus stands ready to exchange identities with the “you,” the “he,” 
the “she,” or the “they” that populate the world reflected by the song 
culture of Lesbos. So all three persons of the personal pronoun in Greek 
lyric take on the role of shifters (for applications of this technical term, 
see PHo§i7n3o). 

In the songs of Sappho, for example, the “I” who speaks may be 
Sappho speaking in the first person to the bride or to the bridegroom 
in the second person — or about them in the third person. Or it may 
be the bridegroom or the bride speaking to each other — or even to 
Sappho. So also in the songs of Alcaeus, the “I” may play out a variety 
of roles. The “I” is not only the speaker who is Alcaeus speaking in the 
first person to his comrades in the second person — or about them in the 
third person. In one song of Alcaeus, for example, the song starts with 
the “I” of a female speaker, who speaks of the sound of a mating-call 
from a stag that lingers in the heart of a hind (F 10B). 

The “I” of Alcaeus can act as the crazed lover of a young boy or 
girl. His “I” can even be Sappho herself, transposed from the protective 
context of the chorus into the unprotected context of the symposium. 
Aristotle ( Rhetoric i . 1367a) quotes the relevant wording of a duet fea- 
turing, on one side, Alcaeus in the act of making sly sexual advances on 
Sappho and, on the other side, Sappho in the act of trying to protect 
her honor by cleverly fending off the predatory words of Alcaeus: 

He: I want to say something to you, but I am 
prevented by shame . . . 

She: But if you had a desire for good and beautiful things 
and if your tongue were not stirring up something bad to say 
then shame would not seize your eyes 

and you would be speaking about the just and honorable thing 
to do. 

Sappho F 137 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

Such symmetry between Alcaeus and Sappho was perpetuated in 
the poetic traditions of the symposium well beyond the old historical 
setting of festive celebrations at Messon in Lesbos. A newer historical 
setting was Athens during the sixth and the fifth centuries BCE. Here 
the songs of Alcaeus and Sappho continued to be performed in two 
coexisting formats of monodic performance: one of these was the rel- 
atively small-scale and restricted format of the symposium, while the 
other was the spectacularly large-scale and public format of citharodic 
concerts at the musical competitions of the festival of the Panathenaia 
(Nagy 2004a). 

In the context of this Athenian reception, the symmetry between 
Alcaeus and Sappho is still visible. On a red-figure vase made some- 
time in the decade of 480—470 BCE (Munich, Antikensammlungen 
no. 2416), we see on one side of the vase a painting that features the 
roguish Alcaeus and the demure Sappho: the two are pictured as concert 
performers, each playing on a specialized lyre known as the barbiton. 
On the other side of the vase, we see a painting that features the god 
Dionysus and a maenad in a stylized sympotic scene. The stylized musi- 
cal duet between Alcaeus and Sappho in this red-figure painting matches 
in its symmetry the stylized musical duet between the same singers as 
quoted by Aristotle. 

The symmetry between Alcaeus and Sappho as exponents of sym- 
potic and choral performance is already framed within the sympotic 
poetry of Alcaeus. It happens in his Song 130, which is the same con- 
text in which we saw him referring to the choral performance of women 
at the festival of the Kallisteia at Messon. The ritual space of Messon 
is figured here in mythological terms. At the mythologized moment 
when the poet speaks in Song 130, this space is imagined as a “no man’s 
land” serving as a place of refuge for the alienated Alcaeus, exiled from 
his native city ofMytilene. Such a view of this ritual space is a mythol- 
ogized way of looking at an “everyman’s land” serving as a place of 
integration for the poetry of Alcaeus in the festive here-and-now of this 
poetry as it continues to be performed in this ritual space. To conceive 
of this poetry as having a life of its own, beyond the lifetime of the poet 
himself, is a ritualized way of looking at the ongoing performance of the 
songs of Alcaeus, which are imagined as worthy of universal acceptance 
by all who take part in the festivals held at Messon, the sacred space of 
the federation of Lesbos (Nagy 1993). 

Such a poetic gesture is an epigrammatic way for the figure of 
Alcaeus to foretell the reception of his poetry within the overall commu- 
nity. There are similar epigrammatic gestures to be found in the poetry 


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of Thegonis (19—24): in that case as well, the mythologized rejection 
of the poet by his own community in his own lifetime is predicated 
on the ritualized acceptance of his poetry after he dies (PP 220—23). 
In the poetics of such epigrammatic gestures, the ongoing reception 
of a poet’s poetry is expressed by the disembodied voice of the poet 
imagined as speaking from the dead, as if from an epigram (Theognis 
1209-10; Wickersham 1986 and Nagy 1993). There are similar gestures 
attested in archaic epigrams attributed to Homer (HPC i§9). But the 
disembodied voice of an archaic lyric poet such as Alcaeus needs no 
such epigram: his songs are reactivated every time they are sung by live 
voices at the festivals of Messon in Lesbos. 

The sympotic poetry of Alcaeus, framing the choral poetry of 
Sappho, was hardly isolated in its native Aeolian setting on the island 
of Lesbos. It was strongly influenced by contacts with the neighboring 
empire of the Lydians on the mainland of Asia Minor. The orientaliza- 
tion of the musical traditions of Lesbos was in fact a pattern common to 
the song cultures of all Hellenes native to Asia Minor and to the outlying 
islands, most notably Lesbos, Chios, and Samos. This pattern of orien- 
talization was especially apparent in the Greek institution of the sympo- 
sium, as reshaped by the exotic fashions of the Lydian empire. Among 
these fashions, marked by ostentatious signs of luxury, was the new 
Greek custom of reclining on couches on the occasion of a symposium. 
A most flamboyant musical example of such Lydian orientalism was 
the lyric virtuoso Anacreon, court poet of Polycrates, who was tyrant 
of Samos. Although Anacreon and his patron Polycrates flourished in a 
period when the Persian empire had already replaced the Lydian empire, 
the exotic themes of Lydian musical orientalism persisted: as a performer 
of lyric, Anacreon was associated with such paraphernalia as turbans, 
parasols, and sympotic couches. Herodotus pictures Anacreon in the 
act of singing his lyric poetry at a symposium hosted by Polycrates, 
who is shown reclining on a sympotic couch (3.121). 

The Lydian musical orientalism of drinking and singing while 
reclining on a couch at a symposium extends to representations of 
Dionysus as god of the symposium: he too is conventionally pictured 
as drinking and singing while reclining on a couch. He too is oriental- 
ized — and orientalizing. To those who are notionally uninitiated in the 
traditions of the symposium - and of theater - Dionysus appears to be 
more of a Lydian than a Hellene. That is how the god appears to the 
uninitiated Pentheus in the Bacchae of Euripides. 

The orientalizing of the symposium and of sympotic singing was 
fundamentally a sign of political power, modeled on the imperial power 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

of a Lydian turannos (PH io§§6— 22). A Greek tyrant like Polycrates of 
Samos was defined by the Lydian musical orientalism of his court poet 
Anacreon, whose sympotic poetry served to express the power of his 
patron. The personal love of the tyrant for a beautiful boy like Bathyllus 
became a public expression of his political power as mediated by the 
sympotic love poetry of Anacreon. 

Even before Anacreon, there are already clear signs of Lydian musi- 
cal orientalism in the earlier lyric traditions of Alcaeus and Sappho, as 
also in the even earlier traditions of Terpander. And there is a wealth 
of references to exotic Lydian fashions not only in sympotic but also 
in choral lyric contexts. Such a context is Sappho’s self-professed love 
of (h)abrosuna ‘luxury’ (F 58.25), which is a lyric theme fit for Lydian 
kings and queens (Xenophanes 3.1; PH io §§ i 8— 19). Moreover, we have 
already noted such Greek choral lyric events as the “Dance of the Lydian 
Maidens” at a festival in Ephesus and the “Procession of the Lydians” 
at a festival in Sparta. 

A vital point of contact between earlier and later phases of such 
orientalizing features in the making of Greek lyric was the Ionian island 
empire of Poly crates, tyrant of Samos. The sympotic love poetry of his 
court poet Anacreon was closely related to older forms of sympotic love 
poetry native to Lesbos. Like the older poetry of Alcaeus, the newer 
poetry of Anacreon refers even to Sappho herself as a stylized love 
interest (Nagy 2004a). 

After the island empire of Polycrates imploded in the course of 
its rivalry with the mainland empire of the Persians, there was a mas- 
sive shift from East to West in the history of Greek lyric traditions. A 
most fitting symbol of this shift was the gesture made by Hipparchus, 
tyrant of Athens, in sending a warship to Samos to rescue the lyric vir- 
tuoso Anacreon and bring him to his city (“Plato” Hipparkhos 228c). 
Around this time, Athens became a vitally important new center for 
the development and diffusion of lyric poetry as performed nonprofes- 
sionally at symposia and professionally at public concerts. At the most 
prestigious Athenian festival of the Panathenaia, professional citharodes 
and aulodes competed with each other in spectacular performances of 
melic poetry originating from poets such as Alcaeus, Sappho, Anacreon, 
and Simonides, while professional rhapsodes competed in performing 
nonmelic poetry originating from Archilochus, Hipponax, Callinus, 
Mimnermus, and so on. 

Such melic and nonmelic traditions, in becoming an integral part 
of the Athenian song culture, strongly influenced the corresponding tra- 
ditions of another most prestigious festival of Athens, the City Dionysia. 


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That is how the melic and the nonmelic traditions of Athenian state 
theater became eventually merged with the older lyric traditions of 
the Aeolic and Ionic worlds as once mediated by the island empire 
of Polycrates. And the resulting network of cross-influences and cross- 
references can be seen in the themes of Athenian comedy, which mir- 
rored the negative as well as the positive themes of the older sympotic 
traditions. These themes, dealing with such special topics of interest 
as the behavior of women in love or of men at war, naturally led 
to the comic ridicule of influential lyric models such as Sappho and 

Further to the west of Athens, there were other vitally impor- 
tant new centers for the development and diffusion of lyric poetry 
as performed in symposia or in larger-scale public contexts of choral 
performance. The Panhellenism of this diffusion is evident from the 
prestige of early masters of Aeolian lyric such as Terpander in Sparta 
or Arion in Corinth. Even further to the west, the art of such early 
masters eventually became merged with the art of other early masters 
such as Stesichorus in Italy and Sicily. Later on, with the implosion of 
the island empire of Polycrates in the east, the shift of lyric traditions to 
the west became most pronounced in Italy and Sicily. Just as Anacreon 
left behind the luxurious orientalizing world of the tyrant Polycrates in 
Samos, so too did Ibycus. Whereas Anacreon left for Athens, however, 
Ibycus left for Italy and Sicily, infusing with new life the old lyric tra- 
ditions represented there by Stesichorus. The kleos aphthiton ‘unwilting 
glory’ promised by the lyric poetry of Ibycus to the tyrant Polycrates 
(F 282.47) had sadly wilted in the East. But that kleos ‘glory’ was to 
blossom again in the West, as we see from the poetry of lyric virtuosi 
such as Ibycus, Lasus, Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides. 

The idea that the medium of kleos is a metaphorical flower that will 
never stop blossoming was understood by Pindar. As we saw earlier from 
the wording of one of his songs, Achilles as the hero who is the message 
glorified by the kleos will die and thus stop blossoming, as expressed by 
the verb phthinein ‘wilt’, but the medium that conveys the message will 
never die ( Isthmian 8.56a-62; PH 7§6). As a master of this medium of 
kleos, Pindar presents himself as a poet who controls the lyric present as 
well as the epic past: 

I am a guest [xenos] . Keeping away dark blame [psogos] and 
bringing genuine glory [kleos], like streams of water, to a 
man who is near and dear [philos] , I will praise [ainein] him. 

Pindar Nemean 7.61—63 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

We see here the authority of Pindar as a master of kleos. In this 
passage, which comes from one of his epinikia ‘epinicians, victory songs’, 
the poet refers to himself in an authoritative setting, which is the choral 
lyric celebration of an athletic victory. 

Pindar’s self-references in his victory songs are so stylized, how- 
ever, that no one can be sure of even the most basic circumstances of 
artistic production. For example, there is continuing controversy over 
whether such songs were actually performed by a solo singer, who is 
maybe Pindar himself, or by a khoros or ‘chorus’, that is, by a singing 
and dancing ensemble that was trained by Pindar or by a delegate of 
Pindar. In terms of this controversy, there is a bifocal interest in the 
first-person singular “I” of Pindar (Lefkowitz 1988) and in a notionally 
performing ensemble that is called the komos by the poetry itself (Heath 

As the celebrant, the speaker of the victory song oscillates between 
the singular and the plural of the first person, “I” or “we,” in referring 
to himself in the act of performance. In the singular, the celebrant is the 
poet, Pindar himself. He is the xenos or guest of honor who is giving 
praise to his host at a feast celebrating the athletic victory. In the plural, 
on the other hand, the “we” of Pindar’s epinicians is the voice of the 
komos, that is, of ‘a group of celebrants’. 

In fact, there is no such thing as an audience in such situations of 
celebration. Everyone who attends is notionally a member of the group 
of celebrants. Sometimes the group speaks as a group, and sometimes 
the main speaker speaks as a soloist for the group. 

The concept of a group is essential for understanding Greek lyric 
in general (Rosier 1980). Unlike an audience, the group is not distin- 
guished from those who actually perform in and for the group. The 
whole group notionally takes part in the performance. 

The interpretation of Pindaric references to a group of celebrants 
depends on analysis of the conventions that made such references possi- 
ble. For example, even if the Pindaric references to the komos as a group 
of celebrants do not fit our own notion of the khoros as a chorus, that 
is, a singing and dancing ensemble, it is still possible to interpret the 
Pindaric komos as a stylization of the khoros in the specific context of a 
victory celebration (Nagy 1994/1995). 

Of course there are other forms of Pindaric compositions, such 
as the paean or the partheneion, where it is obvious that the speaker 
is a group. Moreover, in the choral lyric poetry of both Pindar and 
Bacchylides, the celebrating group of the here-and-now is interwoven 
with celebrating groups of the mythical past (Power 2000) . 


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Conversely, myth is interwoven with the here-and-now of its reen- 
actment by the group participating in lyric performance. A particularly 
striking example is Pindar’s Olympian i , a song that recapitulates a com- 
plex of myths that notionally motivate the entire complex of rituals 
known as the Olympic Games (PH 4§§i— 26). By way of such inter- 
weaving, the lyric performance becomes a myth in and of itself. By 
linking itself with past mythical exempla, the lyric performance becomes 
a mythical exemplum of its own. 

The myths of lyric, however, need not be universal. The muthoi 
that are believed by some may not be believable to the poet himself: 

Yes, there are many wondrous things [thaumata]. And the 
words that men tell, myths [ muthoi ] embellished with varied 
pattern- woven [poikila] falsehoods [ pseudea ], beyond wording 
[logos] that is true [ alethes ], are deceptive. But charisma [kharis], 
which makes everything pleasurable for mortals, brings it 
about, by way of giving honor, that even the unbelievable 
oftentimes becomes believable. 

Pindar Olympian 1.28—32 

The myths that Pindar’s song marks as falsehoods have to do with 
things heard about the hero Pelops during a time when he was not 
to be seen ( Olympian 1.46-48). The myths that Pindar’s song marks 
as falsehoods here are falsehoods not because they are myths but only 
because they are myths that differ from the master myth privileged as the 
truth by Pindar. In this case, the “false” myths represent rejected versions 
of the story of the hero Pelops, while the “true” myth represents the 
official version as integrated into the complex of rituals known as the 
Olympic Games (PH 4§24). While the myths that are “falsehoods” can 
merely be heard, the myth that is “true” can actually be seen: the visibility 
of the myth is captured in the moment when Pelops emerges from 
the purifying caldron, resplendent with his ivory shoulder ( Olympian 

The Greek word kharis, which I have translated for the moment 
as ‘charisma’, is imagined here as a superhuman force giving power to 
the myths of lyric; it is parallel to the Latin word gratia, which refers 
simultaneously to the beauty (‘grace’) and the pleasure (‘gratification’) of 
any exchange (PH 2§27n72). In the poetry of lyric, such an exchange 
takes place between the lyric performer and everyone who participates 
in the lyric performance — including the gods and heroes who figure 
in the lyric composition. So the charisma of kharis is the essence of 


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Lyric and Greek Myth 

lyric performance and composition. This charisma is what gives myth 
the ‘“honor” it deserves, making people believe what myth says — even 
when the things that are said transcend the believable. 

Suggested Reading 

On myth in lyric as distinct from epic, the observations of Martin 1997 
are seminal. On the common heritage of Greek epic and lyric: Bergren 
1975; also Petropoulos 1994. Bundy 1986 shows how myth comes to 
life in the context of lyric conventions; also Kurke 1991. On myth in 
choral lyric, Calame 2001 is foundational. On the subtleties of myth in 
lyric, Carson 1986 offers an engaging essay. 


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2: Homer and Greek Myth 

Gregory Nagy 

T n the classical period of Greek literature, Homer was the primary 
representative of what we know as epic. The figure of Homer as a 
poet of epic was considered to be far older than the oldest known 
poets oflyric, who stemmed from the archaic period. It was thought that 
Homer, acknowledged as the poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey, stemmed 
from an earlier age. Herodotus (second half of the fifth century BCE) 
says outright that Homer and Hesiod were the first poets of the Greeks 
(2.53.1-3). It does not follow, however, that the myths conveyed by 
the poetry of Homer and Hesiod are consistently older than the myths 
conveyed by the poetry oflyric. In fact, the traditions of Greek lyric are 
in many ways older than the traditions of Greek epic, and the myths con- 
veyed by epic are in many ways newer than the myths conveyed by lyric. 

As we saw in the previous chapter, the traditions of Greek lyric 
were rooted in oral poetry. If, then, Homer as a poet of epic was thought 
to have lived in an even earlier era than the era of the earliest known 
poets of lyric, it follows that the traditions of epic as represented by 
Homer were likewise rooted in oral poetry. 

The oral traditional basis of Homeric poetry can be demonstrated 
by way of comparative as well as internal analysis. The decisive impetus 
for comparative research comes from the evidence of living oral tradi- 
tions. The two most prominent names in the history of this research 
are Milman Parry (collected papers published posthumously in Parry 
1971) and Albert Lord (definitive books published in i960, 1991, 1995). 
Although Parry had started his own research by analyzing the internal 
evidence of Homeric poetry, as reflected in the texts of the Iliad and 
the Odyssey, he later set out to observe first-hand the living oral poetic 
traditions of the former Yugoslavia (first in the summer of 1933, and 
then from June 1934 to September 1935). 


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Homer and Greek Myth 

On the basis of his comparative analysis, Parry found that oral 
poetry was not restricted to epic, which had seemed, at first, to be the 
prototypical poetic genre in the prehistory of Greek literature. Parry’s 
finding has been reinforced by the cumulative evidence of ongoing com- 
parative research, which shows that oral poetry and prose span a wide 
range of genres in large-scale as well as small-scale societies throughout 
the world; further, epic is not a universal type of poetry, let alone a 
privileged prototype (PH [= Nagy 1990a] I4§§2— 3). 

On the basis of internal evidence as well, Parry found that epic was 
not the only extant form of ancient Greek poetry that derived directly 
from oral traditions. Parry’s own work (1932) on the poetry of Sappho 
and of Alcaeus showed that oral traditions shaped the ancient Greek 
traditions of lyric as well as epic. The work of Lord (1995: 22—68) has 
provided comparative evidence to reinforce Parry’s internal evidence 
about Greek lyric. As we see from the combined work of Parry and 
Lord, to draw a line between Homer and the rest of ancient Greek 
literature is to risk creating a false dichotomy. There is a similar risk 
in making rigid distinctions between oral and written aspects of early 
Greek poetry in general (Lord 1995: 105-6). 

In the history of research on ancient Greek literature, the single 
most important body of internal evidence showing traces of oral tradi- 
tions has been the text of Homeric poetry, in the form of the Iliad and 
the Odyssey. For some (such as Adam Parry 1966: 193), the artistry of 
an epic such as the Iliad is living proof that the text is “the design of a 
single mind.” By implication, the artistic organization and cohesiveness 
of Homeric poetry must be indicative of individual creativity, achievable 
only in writing. We see here the makings of another false dichotomy 
(as restated by Finkelberg 2000): what is “unique” and therefore sup- 
posedly literary is contrasted with what is “multiform” and therefore 
supposedly oral. The fact is that multiformity, as a characteristic of oral 
poetry, is a matter of degrees and historical contingencies: for example, 
even if “our” Iliad is less multiform than, say, a poem of the so-called 
Epic Cycle such as the Cypria, it does not follow that Homeric poetry is 
absolutely uniform while “Cyclic” poetry is multiform (HTL [— Nagy 
2004b] 25-39). 

In the oral poetics of lyric, we saw that composition interacts with 
performance, and such interaction is parallel to the interaction of myth 
with ritual. The same can be said about the epic poetry attributed to 
Homer: to perform this epic is to activate myth, and such activation is 
fundamentally a matter of ritual. 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

Homeric poetry actually demonstrates how myth is activated. It 
does this by quoting, as it were, the performance of poetry within its own 
poetry. The performers of such poetry are characters of epic, human 
and divine alike, represented as speaking within the epic, and what they 
speak — that is, what they perform — is poetry embedded within the 
poetry of epic. What they speak is “speech-acts” (Martin 1989). This 
term speech-act designates a special way of speaking in situations where 
you are actually doing something by way of speaking something (Austin 
1962). In Homeric poetry, the making of poetry is itself an act of doing 
by way of speaking, and that act of doing is an act of performance (HQ 
[= Nagy 1996b] 119). In Homeric poetry, the word for such a perfor- 
mative act is muthos, ancestor of the modern term myth. 

This word muthos refers to the following kinds of speech-acts as 
quoted by Homeric poetry: boasts, threats, invectives, laments, prophecies, 
and prayers (Martin 1989: 12-42). Such speech-acts, in and of themselves, 
need not be poetry, but they become poetry once they are framed by 
poetry. And, in the act of framing, the poetry of epic demonstrates that 
it, too, like the poetry it frames, is a speech-act. The making of Homeric 
poetry, that is, the composing of this poetry, is notionally the same thing as 
doing something, which is the performing of this poetry. Just as the making 
ofboasts, threats, invectives, laments, prophecies, and prayers is literally a 
matter of doing these things, that is, of ritually performing speech-acts, so 
also the making of Homeric poetry is a matter of ritually performing the 
epic that frames these same speech-acts. Just as the speech-acts framed 
by Homeric poetry are muthoi, so also Homeric poetry is itself an overall 

Here is a working definition of muthos as it functions within the 
epic frame of Homeric poetry: it is “a speech-act indicating authority, 
performed at length, usually in public, with a focus on full attention to 
every detail” (Martin 1989: 12). This working definition applies also to 
the epic frame itself, that is, to Homeric poetry as defined by the Iliad 
and Odyssey (HQ 120-21, 128-38). 

In Homeric poetry, to speak a muthos is to perform it from mem- 
ory. A muthos is a speech-act of recollection (Martin 1989: 44). In the Iliad, 
for example, when the old hero Nestor is trying to make a point by 
way of recalling the story of the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths 
(1.260-74), he says that the point he is making is a muthos (1.273). In 
making his point, directed at Agamemnon and Achilles, Nestor is recall- 
ing his own participation in the older story, which he says happened in 
an era pre-dating the era of the present story, that is, the era of the Iliad. 


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Homer and Greek Myth 

So the muthos of Nestor here is embedded within the overall muthos of 
Homeric poetry — in this case, of the Iliad. 

In Homeric poetry, the recalling of a memory is not necessarily 
an act of recalling a personal experience, as in the case of Nestor. In 
other epic situations, the speaker may recall something that happened 
in the experience of others. Such is the case when the old hero Phoenix 
tells a story directed at the young hero Achilles. He introduces his story 
by saying: 

memnemai tode ergon ego palai on ti neon ge 

lids en. en d’ humin ereo pantessi philoisi 

I totally recall [ me-mne-mai ] this action that happened a long time 
ago - it is not something new - 

exactly how it was. I will tell it in your company - since you are 
all near and dear to me. 

Iliad 9.527-8 

When the verb nine-, in the sense of ‘recall’, takes a direct object in the 
accusative case, as here, then the act of recalling is total and absolute; 
when, on the other hand, this verb takes an object in the genitive case, 
then the act of recalling is only partial and therefore not at all absolute 
(HQ 152013). Phoenix says that he had learned his story from others 
(9.524). So the question is, how can you recall an epic action that you 
did not personally experience? 

The answer is to be found in the word kleos ‘glory’, the abbreviated 
plural form of which is klea ‘glories’, which refers to the story told by 
Phoenix. This story, which is about the hero Meleager, is intended by 
its narrator as a model for the story about the hero Achilles, which is 
a story-in-progress while it is being performed. The klea ‘glories’ of 
heroic predecessors are being set up as a model for the main hero of the 

This is the way [houtos] that we [— I, Phoenix] learned it, the 
glories [klea] of men of an earlier time 
who were heroes — whenever one of them was overcome by 
tempestuous anger . . . 

Iliad 9.524-5 

The expression klea andron, which I have translated here as ‘glories 
of men (of an earlier time)’, applies not only to the epic story about 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

Meleager. As we will see, it applies also to the epic story about Achilles. 
That is how the heroic song of Homeric poetry refers to itself. 

The word kleos applies to Homeric poetry as performed by the 
master narrator of that poetry. Etymologically, kleos is a noun derived 
from the verb kluein ‘hear’ and means ‘that which is heard’. In the Iliad, 
the master narrator declares that the epic he narrates is something he 
‘hears’ from the Muses (2.486: akouein), who know everything because 
they were present when everything happened (2.485). What the omniscient 
Muses see and what they hear is a total recall: they recall everything that 
has ever happened, whereas the narrator only hears the kleos from the 
Muses (BA [= Nagy 1979] i§§2— 4). The narrator of epic depends on 
these goddesses to tell him exactly what they saw and to quote for him 
exactly what they heard. 

So the omniscient Muses are goddesses of total recall, and their absolute 
power of recall is expressed by an active form of the verb time- in the 
sense of ‘remind’ (2.492). The master narrator of the Iliad receives the 
same absolute power of total recall when he prays to the goddesses to 
tell him everything about the Achaean forces that sailed to Troy (2.484, 
491—2). Inspired by the omniscient Muses, he becomes an omniscient 
narrator. Although he says he will not exercise the option of telling 
everything in full, deciding instead to tell only the salient details by 
concentrating on the names of the leaders of the warriors who sailed to 
Troy and on the precise number of each leader’s ships (2.493), the master 
narrator insists on his power of total recall (HTL 175^8; cf. 8on75). 
The very idea of such mental power is basic to Homeric poetry. 

So when Phoenix says he has total recall, totally recalling the epic 
action he narrates, his power of memory depends on the power of 
the omniscient narrator who tells the framing story of the Iliad, and 
that power in turn depends on the power of the omniscient Muses 
themselves, who are given credit for controlling the master narrative. 

Phoenix has total recall because he uses the medium of poetry 
and because his mind is connected to the power source of poetry. He 
expresses himself in the meter of epic, dactylic hexameter, because he is 
speaking inside a medium that expresses itself that way. He is “speaking” 
in dactylic hexameter just like the master narrator who is quoting him. 
When Phoenix says memnemai, he is in effect saying: “I have total recall 
by way of speaking in the medium of poetry.” 

As we have seen, Phoenix refers to his story as klea andron \ heroon 
‘the glories [kleos plural] of men of an earlier time who were heroes’ 
(9.524—5). It is a story about the hero Meleager and his anger against 
his people, parallel to the framing story about the hero Achilles and his 

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anger against his own people, the Achaeans (also known as the Argives 
or the Danaans). The telling of the story by Phoenix is an activation of 
epic within epic. 

Phoenix is a hero in the epic of the Homeric Iliad, and this epic is a 
narrative about the distant heroic past — from the standpoint of listeners 
who live in a present tense devoid of contemporary heroes. But Phoenix 
here is narrating to listeners who live in that distant heroic past tense. 
And his narrative -within-a-narrative is about heroes who lived in an 
even more distant heroic past tense. 

Just as the framing epic about the anger of Achilles is technically 
a speech-act, a muthos, so too is the framed epic about the anger of 
Meleager. Conversely, just as the framed epic about Meleager is a poetic 
recollection of the klea ‘glories’ of heroes of the past, so too is the framing 
epic about Achilles. That framing epic, which is the Iliad, is a poetic 
recollection by the Muse whom the master narrator invokes to sing the 
story of the anger of Achilles (i.i). As the narrator of a framed epic, 
Phoenix does not have to invoke the goddesses of memory, the Muses, 
since the narrator of the framing epic has already invoked them for him. 

Technically, everything in Homeric poetry is said by the Muse 
invoked at the beginning of the Iliad and, again, at the beginning of the 
Odyssey. And everything is heard by the master narrator, who then says 
it all to those who hear him, just as characters say what they say to the 
characters who hear them within the master narrative. Those who hear 
the master narrator include the characters inside the action of his master 
narrative: they too are assumed to be listening to the master narration, 
and that is why Homeric characters, such as Menelaus, Patroklos, and 
Eumaeus, can be addressed in the second person by the master narrator 
(Martin 1989: 235-6). 

All poetry embedded within the outer frame of Homeric narrative 
is epic poetry - to the extent that the outer frame is epic poetry. But the 
embedded poetry can also take on a vast variety of forms other than epic. 
An example is lament. The quotations of laments performed by women 
in the Iliad show a poetic form that belongs to the general category of 
lyric, not epic, as we saw in the previous chapter. Still, when epic as 
muthos refers to lament, it can call this lyric form a muthos, as in the 
case of a lament performed for the hero Hector by his grieving mother 
Hecuba in the Iliad (24.200). Such a lament is a muthos not because it 
is in fact a lament but simply because it is framed and regulated by the 
master muthos that is epic (Martin 1989: 87-8). 

The regulatory power of epic as a master muthos leads poets who 
are outside of epic to question the veracity of mutlwi in epic. For a 


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lyric poet, such as Pindar, the problem with Homeric muthoi is the fact 
that they are framed by epic and therefore controlled and regulated by 
epic. Such control and regulation lead to pseudea ‘falsehoods’ that go far 
beyond the truth, as in the case of Homeric stories about Odysseus: 

I think that the things said about Odysseus outnumber 
the things he experienced — all because of Homer, the one 
with the sweet words, whose falsehoods [pseudea] and winged 
inventiveness have a kind of majesty hovering over them; 
poetic craft [sophia], misleading by way of its myths [muthoi], is 
deceptive. Blind in heart are most men. For if they could have 
seen the truth [aletheia], never would great Ajax, angered over 
the armor [of Achilles], have driven the burnished sword 
through his own heart. 

Pindar Nemean 7.20—27 

The lyric setting of this song of Pindar is defined by local rituals 
as well as local myths connected to the hero Ajax: the song was meant 
to be performed in the island-state of Aegina, culturally dominated by 
elites who claimed to be descended from a heroic lineage that included 
Ajax (PH 6§§56 — 58, 8§ion4i). In Pindars words, the local fame of Ajax 
in Aegina is defended by the singular aletheia ‘truth’ of lyric — while it 
is assaulted by the multiple muthoi ‘myths’ of epic (PH i4§22). Whereas 
the perspective of lyric is localized and thus grounded, enabling the 
listener to visualize - literally, to see - the integrated singularity of aletheia 
‘truth’, the perspective of epic is delocalized and thus ungrounded, 
allowing the listener only to hear a disintegrated multiplicity of muthoi 

Whereas the singular ‘truth’ of Pindar’s lyric highlights the 
integrity of Ajax, the multiple ‘myths’ of Homer’s epic shade it over. In 
this way, epic allows Odysseus to seize the advantage at the expense of 
Ajax. The epic focus of interest shifts from the integrity of Ajax to the 
craftiness of Odysseus, and this shift blurs the moral focus of Homer. 
From the retrospective vantage point of the moral high ground claimed 
by the lyric poetry of Pindar, this shift in interest causes the despair that 
led to the suicide of Ajax. This despair is tied to the epic story that tells 
how Ajax, consistently marked as the second-best of the Achaeans after 
Achilles in the Iliad, failed to win as his prize the armor of Achilles after 
the martial death of that hero, who is consistently marked as the best of 
the Achaeans (BA 2§§ i -6). The despair of Ajax is tied also to his failure 
to become the next hero in line to be the best of the Achaeans and thus 


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to continue the epic of Homer after the Iliad. This failure is pointedly 
mentioned in the Homeric Odyssey (11.541—567; PH 8§33nno). 

The epic failure of Ajax is a foil for the epic success of Odysseus, 
which is made possible by the poetic craft of Homer’s Odyssey. Just as 
the craftiness of Odysseus prevents Ajax from inheriting the armor of 
Achilles, so also the craft of Homer prevents Ajax from inheriting the 
epic status of ‘the best of the Achaeans’ after the death of Achilles. In 
the Odyssey, that epic status is earned by Odysseus through his own epic 
experiences after the death of Achilles (BA 2§§i2— 18). 

As we have seen from Pindars Nemean 7, the muthoi ‘myths’ about 
the experiences of Odysseus are to some extent falsehoods. They are 
falsehoods, however, not because they are myths but only because they 
are controlled by a master myth that differs from the master myth priv- 
ileged as the truth by Pindar. That different master myth is controlled 
by the master narrator of the Odyssey. Under such control, the myths 
about Odysseus in the Odyssey lose the grounding they once had in their 
local contexts. Once muthoi ‘myths’ are delocalized, they become rela- 
tive and thus multiple in application, to be contrasted with the aletheia 
‘truth’ claimed by lyric, which is supposedly absolute and unique (PH 

As we are now about to see from Pindar’s Olympian 1, muthoi 
‘myths’ can be imagined as additions to the kernel of truth as expressed 
by wording that is alethes ‘true’. Such additional myths stand for an 
undifferentiated outer core, where various versions from various locales 
may contradict each other, while the wording that is alethes ‘true’ stands 
for a differentiated inner core of myth that tends to avoid the conflicts 
of localized versions (PH 2 §28): 

Yes, there are many wondrous things [thaumata]. And the 
words that men tell, myths [ muthoi ] embellished with varied 
pattern- woven [poikila] falsehoods \pseudea ] , beyond wording 
[/egos] that is true [alethes], are deceptive. But charisma [kharis], 
which makes everything pleasurable for mortals, brings it 
about, by way of giving honor, that even the unbelievable 
oftentimes becomes believable. 

Pindar Olympian 1.28—32 

A multiplicity of ‘false’ myths is being contrasted here with a 
singular master myth described as logos ‘wording’ that is alethes ‘true’. So 
even some muthoi ‘myths’ retold by Pindar can be rejected as falsehoods 
in the process of retelling those myths. There is a comparable idea of 


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pseudea ‘false things’ as told by the Muses in addition to the alethea ‘true 
things’ they tell in the poetics of Hesiod ( Theogony 27—2 8; PH 2§32). 

The myths that Pindar’s song marks as ‘false’ have to do with 
things heard and not seen ( Olympian 1.46—48). As we saw in the previous 
chapter, such myths are ‘false’ not because they are myths but only 
because they are myths that differ from the master myth privileged 
by Pindar, and that master myth is notionally the only myth that can 
be ‘true’ at the moment of telling it. While the myths that are ‘false’ 
can merely be heard, details from the alternative myth that is ‘true’ can 
actually be visualized, that is, literally seen ( Olympian 1.26-27). 

The conceit of lyric poetry is that it can see the truth that it 
tells, whereas epic poetry only hears what it tells, and what epic hears 
may or may not be true. A prime example is a song known as the 
palinode or recantation of the lyric poet Stesichorus (F 193): in this song, 
the poet rejects the myths that tell how Helen allowed herself to be 
abducted by Paris from her home in Sparta, substituting another myth 
that claims she never left Sparta. This alternative myth about Helen, 
which highlights her status as a goddess, is grounded in local Dorian 
traditions (Pausanias 3.19.11; PH I4§§i3— 21), and it is complemented 
by a myth about Stesichorus himself: according to this complementary 
myth, the poet had been blinded by the goddess for having defamed 
her by perpetuating myths affirming her abduction by Paris — but then 
the goddess restored the eyesight of Stesichorus in order to reward the 
poet for unsinging, as it were, his previous song by way of singing his 
palinode or recantation (Isocrates Helen 64; Conon FGrH 26 F 1.18; 
Plato Phaedrus 243 a). 

There is a parallel myth about Homer: this poet too had been 
blinded by Helen for having defamed her by perpetuating myths affirm- 
ing her abduction by Paris ( Life of Homer 6.51—7 ed. Allen); unlike the 
lyric poet Stesichorus, however, the epic poet Homer never recants 
and he stays blind forever (Plato Phaedrus 243 a). Unlike lyric poetry, 
which privileges the metaphor of seeing the true myth, the epic poetry 
of Homer privileges the metaphor of hearing from the Muses the kleos 
‘glory’ of the myths that he tells ( Iliad 2.486); as we have seen, even the 
word kleos, derived from kluein ‘hear’, proclaims the privileging of this 
metaphor of hearing (PH I4§i9). 

As we see from such contrasts between lyric master myths that are 
seen and epic myths that are just heard, not all myths qualify as the truth 
in any single telling of myths. Whereas all myths count as muthoi in 
Homeric poetry, including the epic master myth told by the master 
narrator himself, a master myth told in other media need not to be 


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called a muthos. Not all muthoi count as myths in the positive sense of 
the word muthos as used in Homeric poetry. 

Even in Homeric poetry, where muthos is used consistently in a 
positive sense, not all muthoi are myths of and by themselves. Such is 
the case in situations where the word muthos functions as a synonym 
of the expression epea pteroenta ‘winged words’: in each of these epic 
situations, the one who is speaking to the one who is listening succeeds 
in making a speech-act that makes that listener do something that is 
specially significant to the plot of epic (Martin 1989:30—37, HQ 122). 
Such a speech-act is a myth only to the extent that it gets to be told 
within the framework of a master narrative that counts as a muthos, that 
is, as the Homeric master myth. 

Even those Homeric speech-acts that are not marked by the word 
muthos or by a synonym have the power of complementing and enhanc- 
ing the telling of the Homeric master myth. Such is the case with the 
telling of Homeric similes, which serve the purpose of advancing the 
epic action by intensifying its vitality (on the telling of a simile as an 
act of divination, see Muellner 1990). The point of entry for these 
similes tends to be situated either before or after the occurrence of 
climactic moments in the epic action (Martin 1997:146). The power 
of the Homeric simile in driving the narrative forward is a matter of 

For the Homeric tradition in general, it can be said that the inten- 
sity of maintaining the epic narrative was correlated with the intensity of 
physically performing that narrative. There is a striking example in the 
commentary tradition preserved by the scholia for the Townley codex of 
the Iliad (at 16.131), where we read that the verses telling about the arm- 
ing of Patroklos needed to be performed in an intensely rushed tempo: 
speudonta dei propheresthai tauta, epipothesin tes exhodou mimoumenon ‘one 
must produce this in a rush, re-enacting the desire for the outcome [of 
the epic action]’ (Martin 1997:141). 

The strong visual component of Homeric similes stems mainly 
from lyric traditions that are still evident in later poetry, especially in 
the choral songs of Pindar and in the sympotic poetry of Theognis 
(Martin 1997: 153—66). A most vivid example is a simile that visualizes 
the Achaeans at a moment of defeat in battle in the Iliad by comparing 
them to a blighted population suffering from the conflagration caused 
by a thunderstorm (17.735—9). The wording in this simile is evidently 
cognate with the wording that describes a cosmic flood caused by Zeus 
in a song of Pindar (Olympian 9.49-53; Martin 1997: 160-61). In general, 
the Iliad is pervaded by similes centering on the complementary themes 

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of cosmic flood and cosmic conflagration, that is, of cataclysm and ecpyrosis 
respectively, and these themes are initiated by what is called the Will of 
Zeus at the beginning of the Iliad (1.5): ecpyrosis applies to both the 
Trojans and the Achaeans, while cataclysm applies only to the Achaeans 
(EH [= Nagy 2005] §§63-4; PR [— Nagy 2002] 66). In the Iliad, the 
fire of the Achaeans menacing the Trojans and, conversely, the fire of 
the Trojans menacing the Achaeans are both pervasively compared to a 
cosmic conflagration expressing the menis ‘anger’ of Zeus (BA 20§§i3~ 
20; Muellner 1996). Similarly, when it is foretold that the rivers of the 
Trojan plain will erase all traces of the Achaean Wall at Troy, the flooding 
of the plain is described in language that evokes a cosmic cataclysm ( Iliad 
12.17-33; EH §64). 

The power of the Homeric simile in advancing the plot of epic 
is evident in the Odyssey as well. A most striking example is the simile 
that describes the blinding of the Cyclops called Polyphemus: when 
Odysseus and his men thrust into the single eye of the monster the 
fire-hardened tip of a wooden stake they had just crafted, the sound 
produced by this horrific act is compared to the sound produced when 
a blacksmith is tempering steel as he thrusts into cold water the red-hot 
edge of the axe or adze he is crafting (9.390-94). From a crosscultural 
survey of myths that tell how a hero who stands for the civilizing forces of 
culture blinds a monster who stands for the brutalizing forces of nature, 
it becomes clear that such myths serve the purpose of providing an 
aetiology for the invention of technology (Burkert 1979: 33-4). (On the 
concept of aetiology, see BA i6§2n2.) It is no coincidence that the three 
Cyclopes in the Hesiodic Theogony (139-46) are imagined as exponents 
of technology: they are identified as the three blacksmiths who crafted 
the thunderbolt of Zeus (Burkert 1979: I56n23). Thus the simile about 
the tempering of steel in the Homeric narration of the blinding of 
Polyphemus serves the purpose of contextualizing and even advancing 
that narration by way of highlighting aspects of an underlying myth that 
is otherwise shaded over. 

In considering the function of similes in the narrating of the master 
myth in Homeric narrative, we have seen that their formal features are 
distinct from those of epic, and that they follow their own distinct rules. 
To that extent, the simile may be classified as a genre distinct from the 
genre of epic as represented by Homeric poetry. Still, as we have also 
seen, the internal rules of the simile mesh with the external rules of the 
epic that frames it. So instead of saying that the framed form of the simile 
is a subgenre of epic, it is more apt to say that the framing form of the epic 
is a supergenre (Martin 1997: 166). 


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Besides the simile, there are also other genres framed within the 
supergenre of epic, and each of these genres affects in its own way the 
narration of the master myth. To take a premier example, let us return 
to the story told by the old hero Phoenix to the young hero Achilles in 
the Iliad. At first sight, this story seems to be simply an epic in its own 
right. A second look, however, shows much more. This story follows 
rules of its own, some of which differ from the rules of epic. 

As Achilles contemplates the decisions he has to make in the mak- 
ing of an epic that centers on his own epic actions, he is invited by 
Phoenix to contemplate the decisions made by an earlier hero in the 
making of an earlier epic. As we saw earlier, that hero is Meleager, who 
figures in an earlier epic called the klea ‘glories’ of heroes (9.524-5). The 
framed epic about Meleager, quoted as a direct speech by the framing 
epic, is introduced by way of a special word houtos ‘thus’, signaling the 
activation of a special form of speech otherwise known as the aims (PH 
7§in4). Technically, an aims is any performance conveying a meaning that 
needs to be interpreted and then applied in moments of making moral decisions 
(PH 7 §§i- 4). 

The actual form of the aims varies enormously in the classical and 
postclassical periods. At one extreme are the ostentatiously lofty victory 
songs of the choral lyric master Pindar, which mark the occasions for 
celebrating athletic victories — and which convey to the celebrants var- 
ious lessons that myth teaches about the making of moral decisions in 
one’s own life (BA I2§§i4— 19). At the other extreme are the ostensi- 
bly lowly fables of Aesop in the carnivalesque Life of Aesop, where the 
“moral of the story” is implicit in the context of actually telling the 
story to those who are actually listening to the performance of the fable 
(BA i6§ 5 -6). 

The ainos that Phoenix tells in the Iliad, drawing on myths con- 
cerning the hero Meleager, is intended to persuade Achilles to accept 
an offer made by Agamemnon. That is the short-range intention of 
Phoenix as a narrator narrating within the master narration that is the 
Iliad. But the long-range intention of the master narrator is quite dif- 
ferent from the short-range intention of Phoenix. The master narrative 
shows that the embedded narrative of Phoenix was misguided - that is, 
misguided by hindsight. If Achilles had accepted the offer of Agamem- 
non, as Phoenix had intended, this acceptance would have undermined 
the epic reputation of Achilles (HQ 142—3). 

So the reaction of Achilles to the ainos performed by Phoenix 
needs to be viewed within the framework of the master narrative per- 
formed by the master narrator. From the standpoint of Achilles as a 


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character who takes shape within the plot of the overall epic that is the 
Iliad, the consequences of his decisions in reacting to the subplot of the 
epic about Meleager are still unclear at the moment when he makes 
these decisions. From the standpoint of the master narrator who nar- 
rates the plot of the Iliad, on the other hand, the consequences are quite 
clear, since the master narration takes shape by way of an interaction 
between the framed myth about the anger of Meleager and the framing 
myth about the anger of Achilles (Walsh 2005). The short-range agenda 
of Phoenix and Achilles will be transformed into the long-range agenda 
of the master myth, which will ultimately correspond to what actually 
happens to Achilles in his own heroic life. In the world of epic, heroes live 
out their lives by living the myths that are their lives. 

The point of the story as told by Phoenix is that Achilles must 
identify with those who are philoi ‘near and dear’ — and must therefore 
rejoin his comrades in war. Phoenix himself, along with Odysseus and 
Ajax, is a representative of these comrades by virtue of being sent as a 
delegate to Achilles. More must be said about the word philos (singular) / 
philoi (plural), which means ‘friend’ as a noun and ‘near and dear’ as 
an adjective. The translation ‘dear’ conveys the fact that this word has 
an important emotional component. As we will see, the meaning of the 
framed narrative of Phoenix emerges from the framing narrative of the 
Iliad. As we will also see, the central theme has to do with the power 
of emotions, and the central character turns out to be someone who is 
not mentioned a single time in the framed narrative: that someone is 
Achilles’ best friend, the hero Patroklos. 

From the standpoint of Phoenix as narrator, the word philoi applies 
primarily to these three delegates at the moment when he begins to 
tell his story (9.528). But this word applies also to the whole group 
of epic characters who are listening to the telling of this story. This 
group is composed of (1) Odysseus and Ajax, who are the other two 
delegates besides Phoenix; (2) the two heralds who accompany the 
three delegates; (3) Achilles himself; and (4) Patroklos. Inside the story 
told by Phoenix, the comrades who approach Meleager as delegates are 
the philtatoi, that is, those persons who are ‘nearest and dearest’ to the 
hero (9.585-7). So, from the short-range perspective of Phoenix as the 
narrator of the ainos about Meleager, the three comrades who approach 
Achilles as delegates must be the persons who are nearest and dearest to 
him. From the long-range perspective of the master narrator, however, 
it is not Phoenix and the two other delegates but Patroklos who must 
be nearest and dearest to Achilles. Later on in the Iliad, after Patroklos 
is killed in battle, Achilles recognizes this hero as the one who was all 


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along the philtatos, the ‘nearest and dearest’ of them all (17.411, 655; 
BA 6§i 5 ). 

The story about Meleager as narrated by Phoenix is already anti- 
cipating such a long-range recognition, since there is someone even 
nearer and dearer to Meleager than the comrades, who are described 
by Phoenix as philtatoi, the ‘nearest and dearest’ (9.585-7): in the logic 
of the story, that someone who is even nearer and dearer turns out 
to be the wife of Meleager (9.588—596). In Meleager’s ascending scale 
of affection (the term is explained in BA 6§ 15 ) , the wife of the hero 
ultimately outranks even the comrades approaching him as delegates. 
Likewise, in Achilles’ ascending scale of affection, there is someone 
who ultimately outranks the comrades approaching him as delegates. 
For Achilles that someone is Patroklos, who was all along the philtatos, 
the ‘nearest and dearest’ of them all (17.411, 655). The name of this 
hero in its full form, Patroklees, matches in meaning the name given to 
the wife of Meleager in the ainos narrated by Phoenix: she is Kleopatra 
(9.556). These two names, Patroklees/ Kleopatra, both mean ‘the one who 
has the glory [ kleos ] of the ancestors [pateres]’ (BA 6§§i5, 17-19). Both 
these names amount to a periphrasis of the expression klea andron \ heroon 
‘the glories [kleos plural] of men of an earlier time who were heroes’ 
(9.524-5), which refers to the ainos narrated by Phoenix to a group of 
listeners including not only the delegates approaching Achilles but also 
Achilles and Patroklos themselves (9.527—8). Phoenix is presuming that 
all his listeners ar e philoi ‘near and dear’ to him (9.528). 

Even before the arrival of the delegates, Achilles himselfis pictured 
as singing the glories of heroes, the klea andron (9.189). At this moment, 
he is alone except for one person. With him is Patroklos, who is intently 
listening to him and waiting for his own turn to sing, ready to start at 
whatever point Achilles leaves off singing (9. 190-91) . As Patroklos stands 
ready to continue the song sung by Achilles, the song of Achilles stands 
ready to become the song of Patroklos. So the hero whose name conveys 
the very idea of klea andron is figured here as the personal embodiment 
of the klea andron (PP [= Nagy 1996a] 72-3, PR 17). 

The ainos as told by Phoenix, to which he refers as klea andron 
(9.524), connects with the song of Achilles, to which the master nar- 
rator refers likewise as klea andron (9.189). The ainos also connects with 
Patroklos as the one person who is nearest and dearest to Achilles. 
Patroklos is at the very top of that hero’s ascending scale of affection. 

What must mean more than anything else to Achilles is not only 
Patroklos himself but also the actual meaning of the name Patroklees, 
which conveys the idea of the klea andron. For Achilles, the words klea 


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andron represent the master myth in the actual process of being narrated 
in the epic of the Iliad. For Achilles, it is a myth of his own making. 
And it is myth in the making. 

Just as the song of Achilles is identified with the master myth of the 
Iliad, so also the style of this hero’s language is identified with the overall 
style of the master narrator. In other words, the language of Achilles 
mirrors the language of the master narrator. Empirical studies of the 
language of Homeric diction have shown that the language of Achilles 
is made distinct from the language of other heroes quoted in the Iliad, 
and this distinctness carries over into the language of the master narrator, 
which is thus made distinct from the language of other narrators of epic 
(Martin 1989: 225, 227, 233, 237). It is as if the klea andron as sung by 
Achilles — and as heard by Patroklos — were the model for the overall 
klea andron as sung by Homer. 

The ainos as told by Phoenix, to which he refers as klea andron 
(9.524), connects with the overall klea andron as told by the master 
narrator. The connection is made by way of poetic conventions distin- 
guishing the ainos from epic. One of these conventions is a set of three 
features characterizing the rhetoric of the ainos. Unlike epic, the ainos 
requires three qualifications of its listeners in order to be understood 
(PH 6§ 5 ): 

1 . The listeners must be sophoi ‘skilled’ in understanding the mes- 
sage encoded in the poetry. That is, they must be mentally 

2. They must be agathoi ‘noble’. That is, they must be morally 

3 . They must be philoi ‘near and dear’ to each other and to the 
one who is telling them the ainos. That is, they must be emo- 
tionally qualified. Communication is achieved through a special 
sense of community, that is, through recognizing “the ties that 

Each of these three features of the ainos is made explicit in the 
lyric poetry of Pindar, which as we have seen refers to itself as ainos 
(PH 6§§5~8). One of these features is also made explicit in the ainos 
narrated by Phoenix, that is, in the klea andron \ heroon, ‘the glories [kleos 
plural] of men of an earlier time who were heroes’ (9.524—5). When 
it comes to the emotional qualifications required for understanding the 
ainos spoken by Phoenix, we have already seen that the speaker refers 
to his listeners as philoi ‘near and dear’ to him (9.528). So the emotional 


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requirements of the ainos are made quite explicit. By contrast, when it 
comes to the moral requirements for understanding the ainos, they are 
merely implicit in the word philoi. The moral message as encoded in 
his ainos becomes explicit only at a later point, once the outcome of 
the master myth is clarified. That point is reached when Patroklos is 
killed while fighting for his comrades. It is only then that Achilles, for 
whom the story about the anger of Meleager was intended, ultimately 
recognizes the moral message of that story. 

This kind of recognition, to borrow from the wording used in 
the lyric poetry of Pindar, shows that the listener has become sophos 
‘skilled’ in understanding the message encoded in the ainos. In the story 
told by Phoenix, that message is conveyed by the figure of Kleopatra, 
who is nearest and dearest to Meleager in that hero’s ascending scale of 
affection. In the logic of the embedded narrative, that figure promotes 
the moral principle of fighting for one’s comrades, just as the figure of 
Patroklos, who is nearest and dearest to Achilles, promotes the same 
principle in the logic of the master narrative. 

Patroklos not only promotes that principle: he exemplifies it 
through his own epic actions, thereby forfeiting his life. Then, respond- 
ing to the lesson learned from the death of Patroklos, Achilles will 
express his willingness to forfeit his own life in order to avenge the 
death of Patroklos, thereby justifying the principle for which Patroklos 
had died ( Iliad 18.90-126). 

Plato shows his understanding of this moral principle as devel- 
oped in the master myth of the Iliad: in the Apology (28 c— d), we see 
a paraphrase of the relevant verses of the Iliad (18.90-104), along with 
some quotations of the original wording. Likewise in Plato’s Symposium 
(i79e-i8oa), we see another paraphrase of the same verses. In the case of 
this second paraphrase, however, the choice made by Achilles to forfeit 
his life in order to avenge the death of Patroklos appears to be con- 
flated with another choice that faces the hero. At an earlier point in the 
Iliad (9.410-16), Achilles is saying to the delegates that he must decide 
between two keres ‘fates’ (9.411): either he dies at a ripe old age after a 
safe nostos ‘homecoming’ to Phthia or he dies young on the battlefield 
in Troy — and thereby wins for himself a kleos ‘glory’ that is aphthiton 
‘unwilting’ (9.413). 

Plato’s apparent conflation of two choices facing Achilles turns 
out to be justified: the two choices are in fact one choice. Earlier in 
the Iliad, when Achilles says he must choose between two keres ‘fates’ 
(9.411), either a nostos ‘homecoming’ or a kleos ‘glory’ that is aphthiton 
‘unwilting’ (9.413), he is actually not yet ready to make his choice: the 


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two alternative fates have simply been foretold for him by his mother, 
the goddess Thetis (9.410— n). Later on, after Patroklos has been killed, 
Achilles is facing the same choice, but by now he has made his decision. 
He says there cannot be a homecoming for him ( nostem : 18.90) because 
he must kill Hector in order to avenge the death of Patroklos, and, once 
he kills Hector, his own death in battle will become a certainty (18.90— 
93), just as his mother had foretold — and as she now foretells again 
(18.96—7). By choosing to kill Hector, Achilles chooses to die young 
on the battlefield, and he refers to this death as his inevitable ker ‘fate’ 
(18.115). As his compensation, however, he will now win kleos ‘glory’ 
for himself (18.121). 

So, ultimately, Achilles decides to choose kleos over life itself. Ear- 
lier on, however, when the choice is first formulated, it is not yet clear 
which of the two keres ‘fates’ (9.411) will be chosen by the hero - 
whether it will be a nostos ‘homecoming’ or the kleos ‘glory’ that is 
aphthiton ‘unwilting’ (9.413). The hero is saying that he loves life more 
than any property he can win for himself by fighting in Troy, and such 
property is defined in terms of raiding cattle in particular and acquiring 
wealth in general (9.401-8). Still earlier on, at the very start of the Iliad, 
such property is being defined in terms of the women as well as the cattle 
and the general wealth that the hero has already acquired in the course 
of raiding the Aeolic territories in the vicinity of Troy. At the start, the 
hero’s sense of time ‘honor’ is simply a function of all the property he 
has acquired. The prime example is Briseis, a woman whom Achilles 
captured in one of his raiding expeditions in the Aeolic territories: at 
the beginning of the Iliad, when she is forcibly taken from Achilles by 
Agamemnon, Briseis is treated merely as a war-prize, a trophy, and the 
hero’s loss is seen initially as a loss of property. At this point, the hero’s 
honor is still being expressed exclusively in terms of property. Later on, 
however, Achilles rethinks the loss of Briseis as the loss of a personal 
relationship: he says he loves her like a wife (9.340-43). 

So the aims of Phoenix about Meleager, a hero who seems at 
first to love his wife more than he loves his own comrades, will now 
take on a special meaning for the hero of the master myth that is the 
Iliad. But there are vital questions that remain: does Achilles love his 
would-be wife more than he loves his comrades — or even more than life 
itself? Here is where the name of Meleager’s wife, Kleopatra, becomes 
essential. The meaning of this character’s name is parallel to the meaning 
of Patroklees, the name of the one character who means more to Achilles 
than anyone else in the whole world. After Patroklos is killed, this hero 
is recognized as the one single character who was nearest and dearest 


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Homer and Greek Myth 

to Achilles. Achilles now says that he has all along valued Patroklos as 
much as he has valued his own life (18.80—82). 

So the hero Ajax misses the point when he accuses Achilles of 
loving Briseis more than he loves his comrades (9.622—38). Achilles 
loves his would-be wife the same way that Meleager loves Kleopatra: 
for what she actually means to his comrades. What Achilles loves more 
than anything else in the whole world is what Kleopatra means to 
Meleager — and what his own nearest and dearest comrade Patroklos 
means to him. Just as Patroklos made the moral choice of loving his 
comrades more than life itself, actually giving up his life for them, so 
also Achilles will now make the moral choice of giving up his own 
life for his comrade Patroklos — and for the meaning of Patroklos. The 
meaning of the name of Patroklos, ‘the one who has the glory [kleos] 
of the ancestors \pateres]’, recapitulates the epic choice of Achilles, who 
ultimately opts for kleos over life itself. That is why the epic kleos chosen 
by Achilles must be aphthiton ‘unwilting’ forever (9.413): the kleos of 
Achilles is like a flower so beautiful that it must not ever lose its divine 

This epic kleos chosen by Achilles is also a lyric kleos. Achilles 
is pictured as singing the klea andron ‘glories of heroes’ (9.189) while 
accompanying himself on a lyre he plundered when he captured the 
native city of that greatest singer of lamentations in the Iliad, Andro- 
mache (9.186-9). As we saw in the chapter on lyric and myth, this epic 
song of Achilles is like an echo of the loves and bittersweet sorrows 
heard in lyric song, and such lyrical feelings are typically linked not 
only with Achilles but also with that most celebrated pair of doomed 
lovers, namely, Andromache and the man who earns the ultimate hatred 
and fury of Achilles in the Iliad, Hector (HPC [= Nagy 2008] 2§i7). 
The kleos of Achilles is a form of song that dwells on the hatred and the 
fury, the love and the sorrow — and on the power of song in expressing 
all these intensely lyrical feelings. 

Unlike Achilles, who must choose between kleos and nostos in the 
Iliad, the epic hero Odysseus must have both kleos and nostos in the 
Odyssey. For Odysseus to live out the master myth of his own heroic 
life, he must have a nostos or ‘homecoming’. For Odysseus to succeed in 
coming home to Ithaca, however, his nostos must be more than simply 
a ‘homecoming’: it must be also a ‘song about a homecoming’. The 
kleos or epic glory of Odysseus depends on his nostos, that is, on the 
song about his homecoming, which is the Odyssey. By contrast, the 
kleos of Achilles must be divorced from the very idea of ever achieving a 
successful nostos: as we have seen, Achilles will win kleos by dying young 


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at Troy, but he will lose this kleos if he has a nostos and dies old at home 
(Iliad 9.413). For Achilles, nostos would be merely a homecoming, not 
a song about a homecoming that wins him any kleos. And the kleos that 
he wins by dying young is the Iliad itself. 

Although Odysseus is credited with the epic feat of destroying the 
city of Troy, as the Odyssey proclaims at the very beginning (1.2), his 
kleos in that epic does not and cannot depend on the story of Troy. It 
depends instead on the story of his homecoming to Ithaca. By contrast, 
although Achilles is never credited with the destruction of Troy, since he 
is killed well before that event takes place, his kleos nonetheless depends 
on the story of Troy. More than that, his kleos is in fact the story of Troy. 
The name of the Iliad, which equates itself with the kleos of Achilles, 
means literally ‘the song of Ilion’, that is, the song ofTroy (EH §49). So, 
for Odysseus to get his own kleos, which is the story of his homecoming 
to Ithaca in the Odyssey, he must get over the kleos of Achilles, which 
is the story of Troy in the Iliad. He must get over the Iliad and get 
on with the Odyssey. In other words, he must get on with his nostos, 
which is not only his homecoming to Ithaca but also the song about this 
homecoming. That is the essence of the master myth of the Odyssey (BA 
Preface §§16-18; 2§§ io - i 8). 

For Odysseus to get over the Iliad, he must sail past it. His ongoing 
story, which is the Odyssey, must be about the sailor who is making his 
way back home, not about the warrior who once fought at Troy. The 
kleos of Odysseus at Troy cannot be the master myth of the Odyssey, 
since the kleos of Achilles at Troy has already become the master myth 
of the Iliad. The kleos of Achilles in the Iliad has preempted a kleos for 
Odysseus that centers on this rival hero’s glorious exploits at Troy. For 
the hero of the Odyssey, the ongoing kleos of his adventures in the course 
of his nostos is actually threatened by any past kleos of his adventures back 
at Troy. Such a kleos of the past in the Odyssey could not rival the kleos 
of the more distant past in the Iliad. It would be a false Iliad. That is 
why Odysseus must sail past the Island of the Sirens. The Sirens, as false 
Muses, tempt the hero by offering to sing for him an endless variety 
of songs about Troy in particular and about everything else in general 
( Odyssey 12.184-91). The sheer pleasure oflistening to the songs of the 
Sirens threatens not only the homecoming of Odysseus, who is tempted 
to linger and never stop listening to the endless stories about Troy, but 
also the ongoing song about that homecoming, that is, the Odyssey itself 
(BA Preface §i7n; EH §50). 

Just as Odysseus achieves his kleos by achieving his nostos, so also 
does his son, Telemakhos. When the son goes on a quest for the kleos of 


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Homer and Greek Myth 

his father ( Odyssey 3.83), this quest is also for the fathers nostos (2.360; 
EH §53). To aid the young epic hero in this quest, the goddess Athena 
assumes the role of ‘mentor’ to him, and so she becomes personified as 
a fatherly epic hero, turning into Mentes in Rhapsody 1 of the Odyssey 
and into Mentor in Rhapsody 2 (GM [= Nagy 1990b] 113). (The Iliad 
and the Odyssey are each divided into twenty-four rhapsoidiai ‘rhap- 
sodies’, sometimes called ‘scrolls’ or ‘books’, which are divisions based 
on traditions of performance: PR 63 .) 

The rivalry of Odysseus and Achilles in the story of Troy is formal- 
ized in a dispute between the two heroes: was the city to be destroyed 
by hie ‘force’, as represented by the hero Achilles, or by metis ‘craft’, as 
represented by Odysseus? There are indirect references to this dispute in 
both the Iliad and the Odyssey (BA3§§5, 7), and some of these references 
are relevant to the master myths of the two epics (as in Iliad 9.423-6 
and in Odyssey 8.72-82 respectively). Ultimately, the craft or craftiness of 
Odysseus in devising the stratagem of the Wooden Horse leads to the destruction 
of Troy, as narrated by the disguised hero himself in the Odyssey (8.492- 
520). This validation of craft at the expense of force does not translate, 
however, into a validation of Odysseus at the expense of Achilles in 
the overall story of Troy. As we have just seen, that story is the kleos of 
Achilles in the Iliad, not the kleos of Odysseus in the Odyssey. 

Even in situations where the metis ‘craft’ of Odysseus helps advance 
the homecoming of the hero in the Odyssey, it does nothing to advance 
the kleos of his past epic exploits at Troy. A case in point is the decisive 
moment in the Odyssey when Odysseus devises the stratagem of call- 
ing himself Outis ‘no one’ (9.366) in order to deceive and then blind 
Polyphemus the Cyclops. The pronoun ou tis ‘no one’ used by the hero 
for the crafting of his false name deceives not only the Cyclops but also 
the monster’s fellow Cyclopes when they use the same pronoun to ask 
the blinded Polyphemus this question: perhaps someone has wronged you? 
(9.405, 406). The syntax of the question, expressing the uncertainty of 
the questioners, requires the changing of the pronoun ou tis ‘no one’ 
into its modal byform me tis ‘perhaps someone’, which sounds like the 
noun metis ‘craft’. The modal byform me tis is intentionally signaling 
here the verbal craft used by Odysseus in devising this stratagem (BA 
20§4n7). And this intentional act of signaling is made explicit later on 
when the narrating hero actually refers to his stratagem as a metis (9.414). 
The same can be said about the hero’s previous stratagem of blinding 
the Cyclops with a sharpened stake, an act of craftiness compared to the 
craft of blacksmiths (9.390-94). These and all other stratagems used by 
the hero against the Cyclops qualify as metis ‘craft’ (9.422). 

7 1 

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It goes without saying that the stratagem of crafting the false name 
Outis succeeds: when the blinded Cyclops answers the question of his 
fellow Cyclopes, perhaps someone has wronged you? (9.405, 406), he uses 
the nonmodal form of the pronoun, saying ou tis ‘no one’ has wronged 
me (9.408). Still, though this stratagem succeeds in rescuing Odysseus 
(and, for the moment, some of his comrades), it fails to rescue the hero’s 
past kleos in Troy. In fact, the stratagem of Odysseus in calling himself 
Outis ‘no one’ produces just the opposite effect: it erases any previous 
claim to any kleos that the hero would have had before he entered the 
cave of the Cyclops. Such erasure is signaled by the epithet outidanos 
‘good-for-nothing’, derivative of the pronoun ou tis ‘no one’: whenever 
this epithet is applied to a hero in the Iliad, it is intended to revile the 
name of that hero by erasing his epic identity (as in Iliad 11.390). Such 
erasure means that someone who used to have a name will now no 
longer have a name and has therefore become a nobody, a no one, ou tis. 
In the Odyssey, the Cyclops reviles the name of the man who blinded 
him by applying this same epithet outidanos ‘good-for-nothing’ to the 
false name Outis (9.460). The effect of applying this epithet completes 
the erasure of the hero’s past identity that was started by Odysseus when 
he renamed himself as ou tis ‘no one’. The name that the hero had 
heretofore achieved for himself has been reduced to nothing and must 
hereafter be rebuilt from nothing. 

It is relevant that the annihilation of the hero’s identity happens in 
the darkness of an otherworldly cave, in the context of extinguishing 
the light of the single eye of the Cyclops, thereby darkening forever the 
monster’s power to see the truth unless he hears it. In the poetics of 
Greek myth, both epic and lyric, the identity or nonidentity of a hero 
matches the presence or absence of light: in the words of Pindar ( Pythian 
8.95-7), the difference between being tis ‘someone’ and being ou tis ‘no 
one’ becomes visible when a burst of light and life coming from Zeus 
himself illuminates the void of darkness and death (Nagy 2000: no— 11). 

It is just as relevant that the master narrative of the Odyssey situ- 
ates Odysseus in the darkness of another otherworldly cave at the very 
beginning of that narrative. At the point chosen for the beginning of 
the actual storytelling (1.11: entha ‘there’), the first detail to be narrated 
is that Odysseus is at this moment being deprived of his nostos (1 .13) by a 
goddess called Calypso (1 . 14) who is keeping him concealed in her cave 
(1.15). The feelings of attraction associated with the beautiful nymph 
Calypso are matched by feelings of repulsion evoked by her terrifying 
name Kalupso, derived from the verb kaluptein ‘conceal’ (GM 254nio8; 
Crane 1988): this verb is traditionally used in ritual formulas of burial, 


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Homer and Greek Myth 

and it conveys the idea of consigning the dead to concealment in the 
realm of darkness and death (as in Iliad 6.464, 23.91). 

Of all the tales of homecomings experienced by the Achaean 
heroes after Troy, whether these homecomings succeed or fail, only the 
tale of Odysseus is still untold at the beginning of the Odyssey. Only his 
homecoming is still in doubt. This is the point being made at the very 
start of the tale: that the narrative is being kept in a state of suspension, 
and the cause of this suspension is said to be the goddess Calypso, who 
is preventing Odysseus from his nostos (1.13) by keeping him concealed 
in her cave (1 . 15) . For the narrative to start, the nostos of Odysseus has to 
be activated, and so the Olympian gods intervene to ensure the eventual 
homecoming of Odysseus to Ithaca (1.16-17). 

In Rhapsody 5 of the Odyssey, the Olympians send the god Her- 
mes as their messenger to Calypso, and he tells her that she must allow 
Odysseus to make his way back home. So she must stop preventing 
Odysseus from getting started with the master myth of the Odyssey. 
That master myth is the nostos of Odysseus, which must be not only the 
hero’s homecoming but also the song about his homecoming. 

The role of the goddess Calypso in threatening to prevent the nostos 
of the hero Odysseus is reflected in the tales that she herself tells the 
god Hermes about other heroes who became lovers of other goddesses: 
the outcome of these tales is death (5.118-29). For example, the hero 
Orion is killed off by Artemis because he became the lover of Eos, the 
goddess of the dawn (5.121-4). And the narrative ofthe Odyssey actually 
foretells a similar death for Odysseus - if he had continued to be the 
lover of Calypso (5.271-5; BA io§39). 

The relationship of Odysseus and Calypso shows that the nostos of 
the hero is not only a ‘homecoming’ but also, more basically, a ‘return’. 
That is, the nostos of the hero is not only a return to Ithaca but also, in a 
mystical sense, a return to light and life (Frame 1978). To return from the 
cave of Calypso at the end of Rhapsody 12 of the Odyssey is to return 
from the darkness and death of that cave. The same can be said about 
the return of Odysseus from the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus at the 
end of Rhapsody 9 ofthe Odyssey. 

Even more basically, the same can also be said about the return of 
Odysseus from Hades at the beginning of Rhapsody 12 ofthe Odyssey. 
Here too we see the theme of returning to light and life (Frame 1978). 

This grand theme takes shape at the beginning of Rhapsody 11 of 
the Odyssey, when Odysseus starts to make his descent into Hades after 
a series of wanderings that take him farther and farther westward toward 
the outer limits of the world. The island of the goddess Circe, situated 


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at these outer limits in the Far West, becomes the point of departure 
for the hero’s planned entry into Hades (ii.i— 12), but the actual point 
of entry is situated even farther west than that mystical island, since 
Odysseus has to cross the river Okeanos before he can cross over into 
Hades (11.13, 21). The Okeanos must be even farther west than the 
island of Circe. That is because the Okeanos is the absolute marker of 
the Far West. 

The Okeanos is situated at the outermost limits of the world, 
which is encircled by its stream. The circular stream of the Okeanos 
flows eternally around the world and eternally recycles the infinite sup- 
ply of fresh water that feeds upon itself ( Iliad i4.246-246a, 18 .399, 20.65 ; 
HC [— Nagy 2007] 2§§i3— 15, 18). This mystical river Okeanos, sur- 
rounding the earth and even the seas surrounding the earth, defines the 
limits of the known world. Every evening, as the sun sets at sunset, it lit- 
erally plunges into the fresh waters of this eternally self-recycling cosmic 
stream ( Iliad 8.485), and it is from these same fresh waters that the sun 
rises again every morning at sunrise ( Iliad 7.421-3; Odyssey 19.433-4). 

After his sojourn in Hades, which is narrated in Rhapsody 11 of 
the Odyssey, Odysseus finally emerges from this realm of darkness and 
death at the beginning of Rhapsody 12. But the island of Circe is no 
longer in the Far West. When Odysseus returns from Hades, crossing 
again the circular cosmic stream of Okeanos (12. 1—2) and coming back 
to his point of departure, that is, to the island of the goddess Circe 
(12.3), we find that this island is not in the Far West: instead, it is now 
in the Far East, where Helios the god of the sun has his ‘sunrises’, 
an(a)tolai (12.4), and where Eos the goddess of the dawn has her own 
palace, featuring a special space for her ‘choral dancing and singing’, 
khoroi (12.3-4). Before the hero’s descent into the realm of darkness and 
death, we saw the Okeanos as the absolute marker of the Far West; after 
his ascent into the realm of light and life, we see it as the absolute marker 
of the Far East (GM 237). In returning to the island of Circe by crossing the 
circular cosmic river Okeanos for the second time, the hero has come full circle, 
experiencing sunrise after having experienced sunset. 

This return of the hero into the realm of light and life is a journey 
of a soul. The word that I translate for the moment as ‘soul’ is psukhe, 
which is used in Homeric poetry to refer to the soul of the dead — 
or to the life of the living (GM 87—93). The journey of the soul after 
death replicates the journey of the sun after sunset, as we see from 
the wording of a death wish expressed by Penelope in the Odyssey: after 
dying, she pictures herself as journeying to the Far West and, once there, 
plunging into the waters of the Okeanos (20.61—5; GM 99n6i). As we 


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saw earlier, the sun is imagined as plunging into these waters at sunset 
and then emerging from these same waters at sunrise. So also the soul 
of the hero can be imagined as replicating that same cycle (GM 90—91). 

But the return of the hero’s psukhe to light and life at sunrise is not 
made explicit in Homeric poetry. Instead, Odysseus himself personally 
experiences such a return when he returns from Hades at the beginning 
of Rhapsody 12 of the Odyssey. This experience of Odysseus, by way 
of replicating the mystical journey of the sun, is a substitute for the 
mystical journey of a soul. In this way, the nostos of Odysseus, as an 
epic narrative, becomes interwoven with a mystical subnarrative. While 
the epic narrative tells about the hero’s return from Troy to Ithaca, 
the mystical subnarrative tells about the soul’s return from darkness and 
death to light and life. In lyric traditions, the mystical subnarrative of the 
hero’s nostos can even be foregrounded (as in Theognis 1123— 4: Nagy 
1985 §69). 

At the beginning of the Odyssey, both the epic narrative about 
the hero’s return to his home and the mystical subnarrative about the 
soul’s return to light and life are recapitulated in the double meaning of 
psukhe as either ‘life’ or ‘soul’: 

That man, Muse, tell me the story of that man, the one 

who could change in many different ways who he was, 
the one who in many different ways 

veered from his path, once he destroyed the sacred citadel of 

Many different cities of many different people did he see, getting 
to know different ways of thinking [ noos\ . 

Many were the pains [algea] he suffered in his heart while 
crossing the sea, 

struggling to win as his prize his own psukhe and nostos - as well 
as the nostos of his comrades, 

and he saved himself but could not save his comrades, though he 
very much wanted to. 

Odyssey 1.1-6 

The hero’s noos ‘thinking’ (verse 3) keeps changing just as he keeps 
changing, adapting to the different ways that different people in different 
places do their own ‘thinking’. In the myth foretold by the seer Teiresias 
about the travels of Odysseus beyond the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus 
will have to change the way he is thinking about the oar he is told to 
carry on his shoulder as he journeys to highlands far removed from the 


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sea: people whose life depends on travel by sea will think of what 
he carries on his shoulder as an oar, but people whose life depends 
on cultivating the land will think of the same thing as a winnowing 
shovel (n. 121—37; 23.265— 84). Only Odysseus will know that what he 
is carrying on his shoulder as he goes from city to city (23 .267—8) means 
different things depending on where he is — either an oar or a winnowing 
shovel (GM 212-15). 

The noun noos means thinking in the sense of being conscious, not 
being unconscious : like the noun nostos, it is derived from the root *nes— 
in the mystical sense of returning to light and life (Frame 1978). 

The hero’s nostos ‘return’ (verse 5) connects with his noos ‘thinking’ 
(verse 3) not only in the explicit sense of thinking about saving his own 
life but also in the implicit sense of being conscious of returning home. This 
implicit sense is encoded in the telling of the myth of the Land of 
the Lotus-Eaters (9.82-104). When Odysseus visits that land, those of 
his comrades who eat the lotus lose their consciousness of home and 
therefore cannot return home. The verb leth- ‘forget’, combined with 
nostos ‘return’ as its object, conveys the idea of such unconsciousness 
(9.97, 102). By contrast, the noun noos ‘thinking’ conveys the idea of 
being conscious of nostos. 

The very idea of consciousness as conveyed by noos is derived from 
the metaphor of returning to light from darkness, as encapsulated in the 
moment of waking up from sleep, or of regaining consciousness after losing 
consciousness, that is, of “coming to.” This metaphor of coming to is at 
work not only in the meaning of noos in the sense of consciousness but also 
in the meaning of nostos in the sense of returning from darkness and death 
to light and life. Remarkably, these two meanings converge at one single 
point in the master myth of the Odyssey. It happens when Odysseus 
finally reaches his homeland of Ithaca. He has been sailing home on a 
ship provided by the Phaeacians, against the will of the god Poseidon, 
and he falls into a deep sleep that most resembles death itself (13.79— 
80). This sleep makes him momentarily unconscious: he ‘forgets’, as 
expressed by the verb leth- (13 .92), all the algea ‘pains’ ofhis past journeys 
through so many different cities of so many different people ( 13 . 90—9 1 ) . 
Then, at the very moment when the ship reaches the shore of the 
hero’s homeland, the morning star appears, heralding the coming of 
dawn (13 .93— 5). The Phaeacians hurriedly leave Odysseus on the beach 
where they placed him, still asleep, when they landed (13 . 119), and, once 
they sail away, he wakes up there (13 . 187) . So the moment of the hero’s 
homecoming, which is synchronized with the moment of sunrise, is 


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now further synchronized with a moment of awakening from a sleep 
that most resembles death. 

From this moment on, now that Odysseus has succeeded in mak- 
ing his return from his journeys at sea, he must succeed also in making 
another kind of return. That is, he must now return to his former social 
status as king at home in Ithaca. In the course of the twenty years that 
elapsed since his departure for Troy, however, the hero’s social status at 
home has been reduced to nothing. So now, most fittingly, he disguises 
himself as a beggar. Now he must work his way up from the bottom of 
the social scale, starting from nothing. He starts by being a nobody — 
that is, by being a somebody who has nothing and is therefore a nobody. 
As a beggar, he hides his social and moral nobility as king. In this way, 
his interaction with the suitors of his wife exposes them as lacking in 
interior moral nobility despite their exterior social nobility (Nagy 1985 

Earlier in the Odyssey, the status of Odysseus as a hero of epic 
had already been reduced to nothing. As we saw in the tale of his 
encounter with the Cyclops, the return of Odysseus from the monsters 
cave deprives him of his past identity at Troy. His epic fame can no 
longer depend on his power of metis ‘craft’, which had brought about 
the destruction of Troy. After his encounter with the Cyclops, Odysseus 
must achieve a new epic identity as the hero of his own epic about 
homecoming, about his own nostos, but, for the moment, his confidence 
in his power to bring about this nostos is reduced to nothing. He has 
lost his confidence in the power of his own metis to devise a stratagem 
for achieving a nostos. When he reaches the island of Circe and learns 
that this place, though it first seems familiar and reminiscent of his own 
island, is in fact strange and alien and antithetical to home, he despairs 
(10.190—202). The wording that expresses his desperation connects the 
hero’s metis with his nostos: 

My friends, I am speaking this way because I do not know 
which place is west and which place is east 

— which is the place where the sun, bringing light for mortals, 
goes underneath the earth 

and which is the place where it rises. Still, let us start thinking it 
through, as quickly as we can, 

whether there is still any craft [metis] left. I must tell you, though, 
I think there is none. 

Odyssey 10.190-93 


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The hero feels he has no craft left in him to devise a stratagem 
for a successful homecoming, and his despair is expressed as a feeling 
of disorientation. He is no longer able to distinguish between orient 
and Occident. In effect, the hero is experiencing a loss of orientation 
in his tioos or ‘thinking’, and this loss is currently blocking his nostos 

The hero’s despair makes his comrades despair as well: as soon as 
they hear the news of their leader’s disorientation, they break down 
and cry (10.198—202) as they recall Antiphates the Laestrygonian and 
Polyphemus the Cyclops (199—200). The recalling of these two mon- 
strous figures evokes not only some of the worst moments experienced 
by Odysseus and his comrades since they left Troy, but also some of the 
worst moments experienced by all the Achaeans when they were still 
at Troy. Strangely, when the comrades of Odysseus recall Polyphemus, 
the monster is described by way of the epithet megaletor ‘great-hearted’ 
(10.200), and this same description applies also to Antiphates in an 
alternative version of a verse attested elsewhere in the Odyssey (10.106). 
Beyond these two attestations, this epithet occurs nowhere else in the 
Odyssey, whereas it occurs regularly as a conventional description of 
generic warriors in the Iliad (BA 20§4n8). Why, then, are these two 
Odyssean monsters described by way of an Iliadic epithet? It is rele- 
vant that Antiphates, like Polyphemus, is an eater of raw human flesh 
in the Odyssey (10.116). In the Iliad, the urge to eat raw human flesh is 
experienced by heroes in their darkest moments of bestial fury, as when 
Achilles says he is sorely tempted to cut up and eat raw his deadliest 
enemy, Hector (22.346-7). So the heroic disorientation of Odysseus in 
the Odyssey evokes nightmarish memories of heroic dehumanization in 
the Iliad (BA 20§4). 

Despite such moments of disorientation for Odysseus, his noos 
‘thinking’ ultimately reorients him, steering him away from his Iliadic 
past and toward his ultimate Odyssean future. That is, the hero’s noos 
makes it possible for him to achieve a nostos, which is not only his ‘home- 
coming’ but also the ‘song about a homecoming’ that is the Odyssey. For 
this song to succeed, Odysseus must keep adapting his identity by mak- 
ing his noos fit the noos of the many different characters he encounters 
in the course of his nostos in progress. In order to adapt, he must master 
many different forms of discourse, many different kinds of aims. That is 
why he is addressed as poluainos ‘having many different kinds of ainos by 
the Sirens when he sails past their island (12.184; BA I2§i9ni; PH 8§3o). 

Even the transparent meaning of Polyphemus (Poluphemos), the 
name of the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus, foretells the hero’s mastery 


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Homer and Greek Myth 

of the ainos. As an adjective, poluphemos means ‘having many different 
kinds of prophetic utterance’, derived from the noun pheme ‘prophetic 
utterance’ (as in 20.100, 105; HR [= Nagy 2003] 55-9); this adjective 
is applied as an epithet to the singer Phemios (22.376), portrayed in the 
Odyssey as a master of the pheme ‘prophetic utterance’ (BA i§4ni). In 
the case of Polyphemus, the very meaning of his name, which conveys 
the opposite of the meaning conveyed by the false name of Odysseus, 
Outis ‘no one’, foretells the verbal mastery of the hero who blinded the 

After the return of Odysseus from Hades, he finds his way to 
the island of the Phaeacians, where he starts the process of rebuild- 
ing his epic identity from nothing by retelling for them all his expe- 
riences since he left Troy. This retelling, which extends from the 
beginning of Rhapsody 9 to the end of Rhapsody 12, is coterminous 
with the telling of the Odyssey up to the point where Odysseus leaves 
the cave of Calypso. Then, after Odysseus finishes his narration, he 
leaves the island of the Phaeacians and finally comes back home to 
Ithaca, where his narration is taken over by the master narrator of the 
Odyssey. The process of rebuilding the hero’s epic identity continues 
in the master narration, but now the direct mode of speaking used by 
Odysseus in retelling his ongoing nostos to the Phaeacians gives way 
to an indirect mode, analogous to the indirect mode of speaking that 
he had used earlier before he made contact with the Phaeacians. Now, 
after the Phaeacians, Odysseus becomes once again the master of the 

From here on, the tales Odysseus tells are masterpieces of myth- 
making as embedded in the master myth of the Odyssey. One such tale is 
a “Cretan lie” told by the disguised Odysseus to the swineherd Eumaeus 
about the Trojan War (14.192-359; BA 7§26, I2§i4); at a later point in 
their verbal exchanges, Eumaeus refers to another tale told by Odysseus 
about the Trojan War (14.462-506) by describing it as a faultless ainos 
(14.508; BA I2§§i4— 16). As a master of the ainos, Odysseus keeps on 
adapting his identity by making his noos fit the noos of the many different 
characters he encounters. And the multiple ainoi of Odysseus can thus 
be adapted to the master myth of the Odyssey. 

By the time all is said and done in the master myth of the Odyssey, 
the character of Odysseus has become fully adapted to his ultimate role 
as the multiform central hero of this epic, a fitting counterpoint to the 
monolithic central hero of the Iliad, Achilles. This ultimate adaptation 
of Odysseus demonstrates his prodigious adaptability as a character in 
myth. He is the ultimate multiform. That is why he is called polutropos 


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at the very beginning of the Odyssey, that is, ‘the one who could change 
in many different ways who he was’ (i.i). 

Odysseus can be all things to all people. His character under- 
goes the most fantastic imaginable adventures of the mind during his 
journeys — and the most realistic personal experiences when he finally 
reaches his home in Ithaca. The psychological realism of this hero’s 
character when we see him at home with himself tempts us to forget 
about the fantastic journeys of his psukhe in alien realms. Our sense of 
the familiar blocks our sense of the unfamiliar. Our mentality as mod- 
ern readers invites us to see Odysseus at home as “reality” and Odysseus 
abroad as “myth,” as if the myth of the hero contradicted the reality of 
the hero. 

Such a split vision is a false dichotomy. The reality of Odysseus is 
in fact the myth of Odysseus, since that myth derives from the historical 
reality of Homeric poetry as a medium of myth. The reality of the myth 
is the reality of the medium that conveys the myth to its listeners over 

Even the Ithaca of Odysseus is real only to the extent that it was 
recognized as real by those who heard epics about Odysseus over time. 
For listeners of the Odyssey in the classical period of the fifth century 
BCE, this Ithaca of Odysseus was the island then known as Ithake. In 
earlier periods, on the other hand, the Ithaca of Odysseus may well 
have been what is now the western peninsula of the island now known 
as Kefalonia. This peninsula, now known as Paliki, had once been an 
island west of Kefalonia (Bittlestone 2005, Bordewich 2006), and such 
a prehistoric Ithaca fits the Homeric description of the hero’s home as 
the westernmost of all the other islands nearby ( Odyssey 9.25-6). 

In their greatest moments of epic action, the heroes of Homeric poetry 
show their true nature. They are larger than life, superhuman, especially 
in their interactions with gods. Not only in Greek epics but also in 
cognate epics such as the Indie Mahdbhdrata, the superhuman status of 
heroes depends on their special relationship with divinity and with the 
sacred (EH §§70-73). 

The age of epic heroes is a sacred world of myth that must be 
set apart from the everyday world of the present. The mythology of 
epic heroes must distance itself from the present by holding on to a 
remote past far removed from the world of listeners hearing the glories 
of heroes. To hold on to such a past, this mythology must show not 
only that an age of heroes existed once upon a time but also, just as 


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Homer and Greek Myth 

important, that such an age does not exist any more. It must privilege 
what is past over what is present, and it must remake that past into a 
sacred age of heroes. 

Homeric poetry, as the primary epic mediator of myth, remakes 
the perceived past into such a sacred age by way of deliberately priv- 
ileging realities perceived as belonging to a past age of heroes. Such 
realities can be tested by comparing them with corresponding realities 
ascertained independently by way of empirical approaches. 

One such empirical approach to Homeric poetry is provided by 
the discipline of archaeology (Snodgrass 1987). The external dating cri- 
teria provided by the existing archaeological evidence point to many 
centuries of evolution for the oral poetic tradition that culminated in the 
Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. A major point of convergence for archae- 
ology and the study of Homeric poetry is the story of the Trojan War - 
or, more accurately, Trojan Wars - and the degree to which the Iliad 
and the Odyssey reflect the realities of the late second millennium BCE 
(Sherratt 1990). 

Homeric poetry, in the process of evolving as an oral tradition, reflects the 
realities of Greek civilization all the way from the middle of the second millen- 
nium BCE to the seventh century BCE and perhaps even later. This formu- 
lation, which takes into account the testimony of 1) Homeric poetry 
as an ongoing system of communication and 2) the successive layers 
of archaeological evidence, represents an evolutionary model (Sherratt 

The archaeological evidence is supplemented by the important 
testimony of the so-called Mycenaean Linear B tablets, the earliest attes- 
tation of the Greek language in writing (on the factor of writing in 
general, see Woodard 1997). It can be argued that the Linear B docu- 
ments show a cross section, dating back to the Mycenaean civilization 
of the second millennium BCE, of a phase of overall Greek civilization 
that decisively shaped the evolution of the Homeric tradition (Palmer 
1979; on the name of Achilles as a reflex of “Mycenaean epic,” see 
HTL 131-7). 

Another empirical approach to Homeric poetry is provided by the 
discipline of art history. The evolving traditions of visual arts, going as far 
back as the middle of the second millennium BCE and even beyond, 
can be compared as parallel to the evolving traditions of the verbal 
arts as represented by Homeric poetry. A most dramatic illustration is 
the cross section provided by the miniature frescoes of Thera (Morris 
1989). In these frescoes (see Figure 12 for an example), which are dated 
well before the middle of the second millennium BCE, we can find 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

representations of various themes that match corresponding themes in 
Homeric poetry, and the resulting visual— verbal correspondences can 
lead to the conclusion that at least some of these Homeric themes, such 
as the “tale of two cities” as represented on the Shield of Achilles in Iliad 
18, were well over a thousand years old before they were finally recorded 
in written versions of the Homeric Iliad (for more on the Shield, see 
HR 72-87). 

Yet another empirical approach to Homeric poetry is provided by 
the discipline of historical linguistics (Nagy 1974; Muellner 1976; Frame 
1978; see in general Watkins 1995). The application of this approach 
to the diction of oral poetry yields new techniques of reconstruction, 
where the terminus of a given reconstruction backward in time can 
stop short of a “proto-language” phase. (See, for example, HTL 131- 
7 on the name of Achilles, where the terminus of the reconstruction 
stops short of “proto-Indo-European”; West 1988 and 1992 surveys the 
evidence provided by linguistics for the derivation of Homeric poetry 
from Indo-European poetic antecedents; for similar conclusions but 
different perspectives, see Nagy 1974, supplemented in PH Appendix.) 
Such reconstructions of Homeric poetry from Indo-European models 
need to take into account the lateral influence of Near Eastern languages 
and civilizations, especially in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE (EH 

Suggested Reading 

Of lasting value for the study of Homer and Greek myth are the chapters 
on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey in Lord i960. Also valuable are the 
elaborations to be found in Lord 1991 and 1995. On Homer and the 
myths of the Cycle: Burgess 1996. On the interweaving of Homeric 
poetry and myth: Frame 1978, Slatkin 1991, Muellner 1996, Lowenstam 
1997, Levaniouk 2000, Due 2002, Wilson 2002, and Walsh 2005. 


Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

Image removed for rights reasons 

figure 12. Naval Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera. Detail. Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Phira. Ca. 1650—1600 BCE. (Photograph courtesy of 
the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.) 

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3: Hesiod and Greek Myth 
Roger D. Woodard 


For the goats of Nahunta’s hill. 
My sometime Muses unawares. 


W riting in the second century BC, the Roman playwright 
Lucius Accius advanced the case - as reported, though dis- 
approvingly, by Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights 3 .11.3-5 1 - 
that Hesiod’s work had preceded that of Homer. Accius based his argu- 
ment on what he deemed to be certain Homeric assumptions predicated 
upon Hesiodic revelation. Modern scholarship, while commonly assign- 
ing Hesiod to Homer s eighth century BC, more typically — though not 
universally 2 — reverses Accius’ relative chronological ordering. 

Whether it be something approaching a real-world life description 
or, as a number of scholars are now more inclined to advocate, only the 
construction of a literary persona, a biographic sketch of the poet named 
Hesiod has emerged from antiquity — chiefly gleaned from the works 
attributed to him. 3 His father is said to have been a native of the Aeolian 
port city of Cyme on the northwest coast of Asia Minor. Economic 
deprivation led the father to resettle in Greece — in the Boeotian village 
of Ascra, lying in Mt. Helicon’s Valley of the Muses — the place that 
Hesiod would call home. The poet Hesiod presents himself as a herder 
and farmer — indeed, he tells that it was while he shepherded his flock 
on the slopes of Mt. Helicon that the Muses came to him and first 
inspired him with poetic art. 

Whatever we make of him biographically, Hesiod and his poems 
undeniably occupy a seminal position in the history of Greek mythic 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

tradition. Not only does the epic poet called Hesiod stand at the 
onset of the literary recording of that tradition, but also, of all ancient 
authors, it is this Hesiod whose word-weaving reveals to us most clearly 
the warp and woof of that tapestry that Greek myth is. Two well- 
preserved epic poems are attributed to him - the Theogony and Works 
and Days — and these will occupy most of our attention in the pages that 

There is a third work, likewise well-preserved, to which the name 
Hesiod has been attached since antiquity - to wit, the Shield of Heracles, 
a poem about the strongman Heracles, the design of his fabulous shield 
(seemingly influenced by Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles 
in Iliad 18 [or both influenced by some other, unattested, tradition(s)]), 
and his combat with Cycnus, a notorious robber and son of Ares. Many 
present-day scholars, however, consider this work to be the product of 
a somewhat later and less talented literary hand. 

Yet if we are inclined to view “Hesiod” in terms ofliterary persona 
and, more than that, as a poet whose works experienced myriad shill- 
ings (recompositions) in oral performance, works that evolved as their 
performance was taken up by increasingly farther-flung performers — 
becoming Panhellenic 4 — then the evaluation of the “authenticity” of 
the Shield takes on new nuances. Nagy’s observations in this regard are 
instructive and illuminating: 

With the important added factor of pan-Hellenic diffusion, 
the successive recompositions of Hesiodic poetry could in 
time become ever less varied, more and more crystallized, as 
the requirements of composition became increasingly uni- 
versalized. Of course the rate of such crystallization, and even 
the date, could have been different in each poem or even in 
different parts of the same poem. From this point of view, 
we can in principle include as Hesiodic even a composition 
like the Shield of Heracles, though it may contain references to 
the visual arts datable to the early sixth century. Scholars are 
too quick to dismiss this poem as not a genuine work on the 
basis of the dating alone, and then it becomes all the easier 
for them to underrate its artistic qualities on the grounds that 
it is merely an imitation of Hesiod. 5 

For all too pragmatic reasons having to do with paper and ink, however, 
the Shield of Heracles will be excluded from examination in the present 


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Hesiod and Greek Mytii 

work. Other poems that have been assigned Hesiodic authorship - 
poems less well preserved — will be encountered in passing in the dis- 
cussions that follow. 

The Theogony 

Whence each of the gods came into existence, or whether 
all of them existed for all time, and what sort of form they 
had, the Greeks did not know until recently - “just yesterday 
or the day before”, so to speak - for I suppose that the time 
of Hesiod and Homer was four hundred years before my 
own — and no more than that. It was they who taught the 
Greeks of the genealogy of the gods ( theogonie [ 0 £oyovir|]) 
and who gave to the gods their names, specified their honors 
and skills, and revealed their forms. 

Herodotus 2.53 

Hesiod’s Theogony - as the historian Herodotus tells us - is a tale of 
the “genealogy of the gods.” It was perhaps long after Hesiod’s own day 
that the poem acquired the phylogenetic title by which we know it — 
in the Hellenistic era, a nomenclatural contribution of the Alexandrian 
scholars. 6 Regardless, it is indeed a work about origins, and no less a 
cosmogony (an account of the origin of the cosmos) than a theogony. 

Hesiod’s is not, however, the only Theogony known from ancient 
Greece. Theogonies and cosmogonies, composed in verse or prose, are 
attributed to several literati dating from the seventh century BC on. The 
earliest of these are preserved in fragments, if at all. 7 Especially significant 
is the theogonie tradition associated with Orpheus, earliest preserved in 
a remarkable document called the Derveni papyrus, a carbonized scroll 
recovered from the remains of a Macedonian funeral pyre, “our oldest 
surviving Greek manuscript.” 8 The composition of the papyrus text 
appears to date to the late fifth century BC, but the Orphic theogony 
that it reports can probably be assigned to the sixth century. 9 

In the section that ensues, we will examine the structure and con- 
tent of Hesiod’s Theogony in some detail. There are fundamentally three 
reasons for lavishing this descriptive attention on the Theogony (and, to a 
lesser extent, on Works and Days). First, limitations of space and consid- 
erations of purpose necessarily prohibit the telling of most of the tales 
that constitute the primary source material for the interpretative essays 


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contained within this volume — but the reader is due some first-hand 
exposure. Second — and following on from the first — the tale here related 
may justifiably be labeled the most fundamental of all Greek mythic 
traditions — the starting point, as it were, for all that follows. And third, 
for discerning the formative elements and processes of Greek myth — 
to the extent we are able to do so - the structural details are crucial. 

Structure and Content of the Theogony 

Hesiod’s epic song of emerging gods and cosmos forms a twisting 
genealogical tree within which are nested numerous mythic traditions, 
some rehearsed at length, some merely mentioned. The poem’s 1022 
lines 10 unfold as follows. 

Typical of early Greek performance poetry, the Theogony begins 
with a prefatory hymn (lines 1— 115). The deities upon whom the poet 
calls in this instance are the Muses, goddesses of artistic inspiration, 
daughters of Zeus. Within this proem, Hesiod invokes the goddesses 
not once, but three times it seems: “Let us begin our singing with the 
Heliconian Muses, who possess the great and holy Mount Helicon” 
(lines 1-2); and then, as though after a false start, “O Hesiod, let us 
begin with the Muses, who hymning father Zeus on Olympus delight 
his great heart” (lines 36-7); and a third time, as he approaches the end 
of the proem, “Hail, children of Zeus, give me lovely song; praise the 
holy race of deathless gods who ever are” (line 104). 11 

As the theogony proper begins, Hesiod sings of the appearance of 
the first of the primeval beings (lines 116—22). “At the very first, Chaos 
came to be”; the Greek term Chaos (Xaos) denotes a gaping void — in 
this context, she is a massive emptiness of dark. Next appear Gaea, the 
‘Earth’; Tartarus, a murky nether space far beneath the earth; and Eros, 

Both Chaos and Gaea then spontaneously produce offspring (lines 
123 , 126—32). From Chaos are born Erebus ‘Darkness’, andNyx ‘Night’, 
(who in turn couple to produce Aether, the bright upper air, and 
Hemera ‘Day’; lines 124—25). Gaea gives birth to Uranus ‘Heaven’, 
Urea ‘Mountains’, and Pontus ‘Sea’. 

Hesiod now shifts his attention to the great primeval couple Earth 
and Heaven — for Gaea has taken her first-born son, Uranus, to be 
her consort — and begins his narration (lines 133— 210) of a myth of 
divine sovereigns who in succession are dethroned. The children that 
Gaea and Uranus produce are many and diverse, beginning with the 
twelve Titans: Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus. Gaea then bears the 
three one-eyed Cyclopes and the three Hecatoncheires, hundred-armed 
and fifty-headed. But Uranus hates his children, and as they each are 
born he hides them away within the depths of Earth. Cronus comes 
to the aid of his mother, and brandishing a toothed sickle of adamant 
that Gaea has crafted, submissive to her schemes, Cronus emasculates 
his unsuspecting father, Uranus, as he prepares to have intercourse with 
Gaea. The blood that drips from the castrated Uranus impregnates Gaea, 
and she conceives the Erinyes, armored giants, and the tree nymphs 
called Meliae. Cronus tosses his father’s severed genitals into the sea and 
from them will spring the goddess Aphrodite. With the emasculation 
of Uranus, Cronus moves to center stage as divine sovereign. 

Hesiod returns to his genealogies. As Chaos had spontaneously 
produced offspring, now her daughter Nyx does likewise (lines 211—32). 
Among the fifteen children she bears — mostly fell creatures of dark and 
trouble - are numbered Cer ‘Destiny’, Geras ‘Old Age’, Moerae ‘Fates’, 
Nemesis ‘Retribution’, andEris ‘Strife’, who herself parthenogentically 
produces fifteen similar beings - such as Ponus ‘Toil’, Machae ‘Wars’, 
Pseudea ‘Lies’, and Horkus ‘Oath’ “who brings the greatest ruin to 
men on earth, when willingly they swear falsely.” Gaea also takes her son 
Pontus as a consort; and together they produce Nereus, an “Old Man of 
the Sea,” as well as Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia (lines 233-9). 

A long heterogeneous section follows next, framed by the geneal- 
ogy of the descendants of Nereus and his siblings (i.e., the children of 
Gaea and Pontus), into which are fitted fleeting references to mythic 
heroic deeds (lines 240-336). Nereus and Doris (one of the Oceanids; see 
below) produce fifty sea-nymph daughters, the Nereids, whom Hesiod 
names individually. Notable among the other descendants of Gaea and 
Pontus are those in the lineage of Phorcys (another “Old Man of the 
Sea”) and his sister Ceto, who together produce monstrous offspring — 
the Graeae, Gorgons, and Echidna, among others — from whom, in 
turn, many more monsters and fantastic beings descend: Pegasus, Gery- 
oneus, Orthus, the Hydra, and the Sphinx, to name but a few of those 
enumerated in this Catalog of Monsters (lines 270—336). 

The poet now turns our attention back to the Titans (children of 
Gaea and Uranus), to their mating with one another (or with some 
other divine being), and to the offspring they produce (lines 337 — 
4.52) . Oceanus and Tethys produce sons, the rivers of the world, and 
3,000 nymph daughters, the Oceanids. To Hyperion and Theia are 
born a son, Helios (the sun), and two daughters, Selene (the moon) and 
Eos (the dawn) . Crius and Eurybia (daughter of Gaea and Pontus) have 


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children - Astraeus, Pallas, and Perses. Through the marriage of Eos and 
Astraeus, Hyperion/Theia and Crius/Eurybia possess grandchildren in 
common (among which are the winds, Zephyrus, Boreas, and Notus), 
as do Oceanus/Tethys and Crius/Eurybia through the marriage of Styx 
(an Oceanid) and Pallas. Here Hesiod briefly interrupts his genealogical 
strains to praise Styx and her children who will side with Zeus (not yet 
born) in his coming conflict with the Titans. An even briefer return 
to genealogy brings the record of the Titans Phoebe and Coeus’ chil- 
dren - Leto and Asteria - and the latter’s daughter by Perses, Hecate. 
The poet seizes upon the genealogical mention of Hecate to hymn 
her praises, and in thirty-eight lines sets out a remarkable theological 
description of the goddess — a beneficent deity providing many advan- 
tages to humankind, quite distinct from the threatening and infernal 
Hecate of a later period. 12 

“And Rhea submitted herself to Cronus and bore illustrious 
children”: Hestia; Demeter; “golden-sandaled” Hera; Hades, “whose 
heart knows no pity”; “loud-rumbling Earthshaker” (i.e., Poseidon); 
and Zeus, “father of gods and men” - so Hesiod continues with his 
Titanic genealogy and sets the stage for the second episode in his 
succession myth (lines 453-506). As Rhea births each of her children, 
Cronus swallows the infants, having been warned by Gaea and Uranus 
that his fate is to be overthrown by his progeny, just as Cronus himself 
had toppled his own father. But just before Rhea delivers Zeus, her sixth 
child, Gaea and Uranus assist her in slipping away to Crete. There Zeus 
is born and placed in Gaea’s care, while Rhea presents to the expectant 
Cronus a stone wrapped in infants’ clothing, which he promptly 
swallows, thinking he has ingested Rhea’s newest babe. When Zeus is 
grown up (seemingly in a year’s time), Gaea tricks Cronus into vomiting 
up the five swallowed children — as well as the stone, which Zeus sets 
up at Pytho as an object of veneration (in the second century AD, the 
Greek author Pausanias [10.24.6] writes of seeing the stone at Delphi 
and of how the Delphians anoint it with olive oil daily and drape raw 
wool over it at festival times). Zeus then releases his “father’s brothers,” 
the Cyclopes, who had remained bound within earth, and in gratitude 
they present him with his distinctive weapon — thunder and lightning 

Interrupting the succession myth, Hesiod briefly returns to 
genealogical strains to rehearse the offspring of the Titan Iapetus and 
his consort Clymene (an Oceanid) — Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, 
and Epimetheus — only to segue quickly into the tale of Prometheus, 
his deceit, and his fate (lines 507—616). Prometheus tries to trick Zeus 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

by setting out two portions of a sacrificed ox - one of bones and one 
of rich meat, but each disguised to hide the actual contents, the lesser 
portion of bones appearing more sumptuous, and vice versa. Crafty 
Prometheus invites Zeus to choose the portion he desires; the other will 
go to mortal men. Zeus, seemingly duped (actually not, says Hesiod) 
chooses the bones; in his anger at the deception, Zeus withholds fire 
from humankind. But fire will be provided to humans nonetheless — 
Prometheus steals it for them, carrying it off in a fennel stalk. As 
punishment for the theft, Zeus has Hephaestus create the first woman, 
Pandora (whom Hesiod names in Works and Days , 13 not in Theogony), 
the matriarch of womankind and a great bane sent upon men, by Hes- 
iod’s misogynistic reckoning. 

The poet switchbacks to his succession myth with the saga of 
the Titanomachy (lines 617-735). Hesiod’s account begins in the tenth 
year of a war that Zeus and his siblings, the Olympians - “the gods, 
givers of good fortune,” ( theoi , doteres eaon [0eo1, booTfjpES eaoov]) - 
are waging against the “Titan gods” ( Titenes theoi [TiTfjvES 0eo1]). By 
Gaea’s counsel, Zeus releases the Hecatoncheires - still locked away 
within earth — reviving them with nectar and ambrosia. These enter the 
melee on the side of the Olympians and, launching gigantic boulders 
with their hundred arms, pound Mt. Othrys, the citadel of the Titans. 
In near apocalyptic language, Hesiod describes how the attack of the 
Olympians, the counterattack of the Titans, and, most conspicuously, 
Zeus’s unrestrained lightning-bolt bombardment shake creation to its 
core. The coup de grace is delivered by the Hecatoncheires, whose bar- 
rage of 300 boulders brings the Titans to their knees and their fate — 
imprisonment beneath the earth in murky Tartarus, as far from earth as 
earth is from heaven (namely, that space through which a bronze anvil 
would plummet in ten days’ time). 

Hesiod’s verses on the Titans’ place of confinement provide a 
bridge to a long description of the Netherworld (lines 736— 8 19). 14 
The poet tells, inter alia, of the alternating coming and going of Nyx 
‘Night’ and Hemera ‘Day’ from that subterranean place; the children 
of Nyx who live therein and venture forth at night — Hypnos ‘Sleep’ 
and Thanatos ‘Death’; and the hound, Cerberus, who guards the gates 
of Hades. Styx, river of the Netherworld, is here reintroduced, and the 
poet sings of her dread waters, by which the gods of Olympus swear 
their oaths (and the fate that befalls one who is untrue). 

The Netherworld described, the poet returns to his narration of 
the Greek succession myth (lines 820—68). Tartarus fathers a child on 
Gaea — a monstrous hundred-headed dragon, Typhoeus. The creature 


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has been conceived in order to usurp Zeus, so that he might claim 
for himself the kingship “of immortals and mortals”; their combat is 
furious, rivaling (if not surpassing) that of the Titanomachy in cosmic 
intensity as Zeus unleashes the full force of his lightning attack. In the 
end, like the Titans before him, Typhoeus is vanquished and cast into 

Hesiod then turns to a short description of a particular set of 
the progeny of Typhoeus: the ill winds (lines 869—80; of the mon- 
ster’s multiheaded brood by Echidna - Orthus, Cerberus, the Lernaean 
Hydra, the Chimaera - Hesiod has already spoken [lines 304-22, a por- 
tion of the Catalog ofMonsters]). Distinct from the favorable Zephyrus, 
Boreas, and Notus (the sons of Eos and Astraeus), these winds bring 
destruction on land and sea. 

It is now, the poet recites, that the immortals — following the 
council of the seemingly fickle Gaea 15 — prevail upon Zeus to reign 
over them as sovereign god (lines 881—5). So he does, dividing “their 
honors among them.” Here Hesiod must hint at a tradition similar to 
that one preserved by Homer ( Iliad 15 . 187-93) - the cosmos (and honor) 
was divided by lot between Poseidon, Hades, and Zeus, who receive 
respectively the sea, the gloomy Netherworld, and the sky; all three 
share the earth and Olympus. 16 

With the succession myth all but completed, Hesiod segues again 
into genealogical strains, rehearsing the wives of the heavenly sovereign 
and their progeny (lines 886—929). Zeus’ first wife is Metis, an Oceanid. 
But with her mention, the theme of usurpation and succession again 
arises: warned by Gaea and Uranus that Metis would bear a daugh- 
ter strong and wise like her father, and a son who would become 
theon basileus kai andron (Qsoov (3occtiAeus xai avSpdbv) ‘king of gods and 
men’ in his place, Zeus preemptively swallows Metis. The daughter, 
however, Metis already carries within her womb; and that girl-child — 
Athena — will be born from Zeus’ body, emerging from his head. Wife 
two by Hesiod’s accounting is the Titan Themis, and among the chil- 
dren she produces with Zeus are the Horae ‘Seasons’. Zeus’ third wife 
is another Oceanid, Eurynome; their daughters are the Charities (or 
Graces), beauty embodied. Demeter, Zeus’ sister, is his fourth wife; 
born to them is a daughter, Persephone. Zeus next weds Mnemosyne, 
and their children are the nine Muses. The twin deities Artemis and 
Apollo are borne by Zeus’ sixth wife, Leto. Last of all, Zeus takes Hera 
as his wife; their children are Hebe, Ares, Eileithyia, and Hephaestus 
(the last-named conceived parthenogenetically). 


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Passing through the section of the Theogony described immediately 
above, the reader is commonly said to cross into the literary domain of an 
author other than Hesiod. Many scholars have contended that some later 
poet or poets (pseudo-Hesiod(s)) have reworked or replaced the original 
ending of the poem. 17 The exact location of the authorial boundary is, 
however, a matter of disagreement: West, for example, argues for draw- 
ing the line after the Metis passage (line 900); Northrup has contended 
for placing it at line 935. 18 But again, Nagy’s words are instructive: 

Critics have also noticed that the conclusion of the Theogony 
at verses 901-1020 is formally and even stylistically distinct 
from the previous parts of the poem. But this part is also 
functionally distinct from the rest, and we may note in gen- 
eral that different themes in oral poetry tend to exhibit dif- 
ferent trends in formal — even linguistic — development. To 
put it another way: different contexts are characterized by 
different language. An explanation along these lines is surely 
preferable to a favorite scenario of many experts, in which 
the Theogony was somehow composed by a combination of 
one Hesiod and a plethora of pseudo-Hesiods. 19 

To return to our survey of the Theogony — the verses following the 
narration of Zeus’ wives constitute a genealogical miscellany, a matter- 
of-fact poetic enumeration of the marriages and amorous affairs of var- 
ious deities, and of progeny born consequent thereto. Thus, Poseidon, 
Ares, Aphrodite, Zeus, among several other deities, make an appearance 
in the initial portion of this section (lines 930— 62). 20 The inventory is 
then interrupted by six lines (963—8): the first two are crafted as a kind 
of broad conclusion to all that has preceded, while the next four form a 
new proem — an invoking of the Muses to sing of goddesses and mortal 
men whom they have loved. This is indeed the subject of the longish set 
of enumerations that then follows — the mortal paramours of Demeter, 
Eos, Thetis, Aphrodite, Circe, and several more — and their children, 
“appearing like the gods” — among them famed heroes such as Mem- 
non, Achilles, and Aeneas (lines 969—1018). Another conclusion (lines 
1019—20) then ends this inventory, and yet another invocation follows 
(lines 1021— 2): a calling upon the Muses to sing of mortal women — 
providing an introduction to the ensuing Catalog of Women, a com- 
pendium of genealogic accounts of female mortals who joined in love 
with the gods and the offspring they produced. While the Catalog (or 


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Ehoiai) was appended to the Theogony in antiquity and Hesiod deemed 
to be its author, present-day scholarship, again, often dates the work to 
a post-Hesiodic period . 31 

Hesiod: A View to the East, Part i 

Scholars have long had some level of awareness of similarities and inter- 
action between the cultures of early Greece and those of the Near 
East (here defined broadly to include Egypt, in addition to Anatolia, 
Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Iran). Throughout the nineteenth 
and much of the twentieth century, however, Classics seemed to have 
lost sight of archaic Greece’s situation within a Near Eastern world . 22 
But with twentieth-century discoveries of large bodies of Near East- 
ern documentary evidence (and, in several cases, the decipherment of 
the languages in which they were composed); the recognition of an 
“orientalizing phase” in Greek art; and archaeological discoveries of a 
Greek presence in the east, and vice versa , 23 it became increasingly clear 
that early Greek culture had evolved, in part, under the influence of its 
neighbors at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and beyond. 

One of the most remarkable and compelling pieces of evidence 
demonstrating Near Eastern influences was provided by the discovery 
of “kingship-in-heaven” myths among, especially, the Hittites (/Hurri- 
ans) and Babylonians. The similarity of these accounts to the Uranus- 
Cronus-Zeus succession myth of Hesiod’s Theogony is indisputable . 24 

The Hittite (/Human) Kingship in Heaven Myth 

Among the many thousands of documents recovered during twentieth- 
century excavations at the Turkish village of Bogazkoy, site of ancient 
Hattusa, the Hittite capital , 25 is a set of clay tablets preserving an account 
of the storm-god Tessub’s rise to power and attempts to unseat him 
from the throne of heaven. Though the texts are recorded in the Indo- 
European language of the Hittites, the traditions they preserve plainly 
show themselves to have been acquired from the non-Indo-European 
Hurrians of eastern Anatolia — the principal deities, such as Tessub, 
being in fact Hurrian . 26 Somewhat complicating the picture, however, 
is the presence of Mesopotamian gods and goddesses as well (Anu, Ea, 
et al.), to which we shall return below. Bearing in mind the Hurrian 
“origin” of this mythic cycle, the tradition will herein often simply be 
designated as “Hittite,” for the sake of expediency. 


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The documentation of the Hittite myth spans several distinct texts, 
or “songs,” 27 the best known and best preserved (though still somewhat 
fragmentary) of which are Song ofKumarbi and Song of Ullikummi, 
and it is these that will occupy the focus of our attention here - though 
not exclusively so, for the entire cycle appears to consist of no fewer 
than five episodes. On the basis of various considerations internal to 
the text, Hoffner 28 argues the probable relative order of these to be (i) 
Song ofKumarbi; (2) Song ofLAMMA; (3) Song of Silver; (4) Song 
of Hedammu; and (5) Song of Ullikummi. A summary telling of the 
Songs ofKumarbi and Ullikummi ensues in the next two paragraphs — 
and, following that, a brief look at the LAMMA, Silver, and Hedammu 

The Song ofKumarbi begins as follows: Long ago in the earliest 
ages, Alalu is king in heaven. In the ninth year of his reign he is deposed 
by his cupbearer, Anu, and flees down to the “dark earth.” Anu then 
reigns as king in heaven for nine years, only to be deposed by his own 
cupbearer, Kumarbi, the son of Alalu. Anu flees up toward the sky but is 
chased and caught by Kumarbi, who bites off Anus genitals. But having 
swallowed Anus seed, Kumarbi is impregnated with several of Anus 
offspring - most notably Tessub, the storm-god; his advisor, Tasmisu; 
and Aranzah, the Tigris River. At “birth” these children exit from 
their confinement within Kumarbi’s body. During the delivery process, 
Kumarbi cries out to Ea (Mesopotamian god of wisdom), demanding 
“his child” so that he may eat him: “I will eat up Tessub. I will smash 
him like a brittle reed.” 29 Though the text is fragmented, a stone also 
plays a role in this episode, which Kumarbi seemingly attempts to ingest 
or (/ and) spits out. The ending of the Song of Kumarbi is lost, but it 
most likely related Tessub’s ascension to the heavenly throne. In any 
event, at the outset of the Song of Ullikummi, Tessub, the storm-god, 
is clearly presented as the reigning king of heaven. 

As the Song of Ullikummi opens, Kumarbi is depicted as plotting 
to overthrow Tessub. A usurper is required, and Kumarbi contrives to 
engender one by copulating with a massive rock (with dimensions mea- 
sured in miles) . The offspring of this union is a stone child, born from 
the rock, delivered by the “fate goddesses and the mother goddesses,” 
and given the name “Ullikummi” by his father. Kumarbi commands 
the gods called the Irsirra-deities to take the newly born Ullikummi 
to the Netherworld (the “Dark Earth”), where they affix him to the 
right shoulder of Ubelluri, the giant who supports heaven and earth. 
Kumarbi’s stone progeny grows at a remarkable rate (one AMMATU 


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per day, one IKU per month 30 ). By the fifteenth day of its life, the stone 
has grown to be a giant of cosmic proportions: 

When the fifteenth day arrived . . . the Stone was high: it was 
standing like a shaft with the sea coming up to its knees. The 
Stone came out of the water. In height it was like a [...]. 

The sea reached to the place of its [ . . . ] belt like a garment. 

The Basalt was lifted up like a. ... In the sky above it meets 
temples and a kuntarra- shrine . 31 

The Sun God of the Sky sees the monster and reports his sighting to 
Tessub. Then accompanied by his brother Tasmisu and sister Sauska, 
Tessub goes out to see the stone giant for himself and is overwhelmed 
with despair. Sauska (written in Hittite texts with the Akkadogram 32 
ISTAR, the name of the Mesopotamian love-goddess) attempts to over- 
come the monster with her seductive charms and song — all to no avail: 
Ullikummi can neither see nor hear. Tessub and the other gods subse- 
quently attack the stone giant but are defeated and routed. Counseled by 
Tasmisu, Tessub seeks out Ea, god of wisdom, and the “tablets bearing 
ancient words.” In response, Ea pays a visit to the Atlas-like Ubelluri, 
and seeing the stone giant Ullikummi mounted on his right shoulder, 
Ea calls for the “primordial gods” to bring out of storage the copper 
cutting tool that had been used in the earliest ages to sever heaven from 
earth. With that tool, Ullikummi is now sawed from the shoulder of 
Ubelluri, and Tessub attacks the stone giant. The lost ending of the 
song undoubtedly recounted the final victory of the storm god over his 
challenger for the throne of heaven. 

The intervening songs of the cycle, though fragmentary, would 
appear to follow fundamentally the same thematic pattern seen in the 
Song of Ullikummi: Kumarbi engenders offspring for the purpose 
of driving Tessub from the throne of heaven, but Tessub successfully 
defends (or regains) his throne. The pattern is not, however, fully attested 
in the surviving fragments of these texts, as we shall see. 

The legible portion of the Song of LAMMA begins with the god 
LAMMA fighting against Sauska and Tessub and gaining the throne of 
heaven with the assistance of Ea and Kumarbi (who perhaps should be 
interpreted as LAMMA s father, in keeping with the blueprint of the 
cycle). Ea, however, finds the boastful and contemptuous LAMMA to 
be an unacceptable king and deposes him from the throne of heaven. 
As the tablet ends, Tessub and his vizier NINURTA are attacking and 
seemingly vanquishing LAMMA. 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

In the partially preserved Song of Silver , 33 a being that personifies 
silver is identified as a son of Kumarbi by (apparently 34 ) a mortal woman. 
This Silver appears to have taken the throne ofheaven from Tessub, who, 
as in the Song of Ullikummi, seems to be overwhelmed by despair at his 
formidable opponent. In the surviving fragments, there is no account 
of Tessub s return to the throne ofheaven. 

The Song of Hedammu survives only in several fragments. 
Hedammu, a monstrous serpent, appears to be the offspring ofKumarbi, 
probably borne by Sertapsuruhi, daughter of the Sea God - who, in any 
event, seems to offer her to Kumarbi, describing her in terms reminis- 
cent of the description of the great rock that Kumarbi impregnates 
with Ullikummi. Hedammu is a usurper — his purpose, the taking of 
the throne ofheaven. Tessub seemingly intends to meet the serpent in 
combat; however, in the text as we have it, Sauska seduces the creature 
with song and beauty (the same strategy she employs against Ullikummi, 
though successfully so in this instance) . 

Hittite and Greek Parallels When the Kumarbi cycle — particularly 
the Song ofKumarbi and the Song of Ullikummi — is compared to Hes- 
iod’s succession myth, the overall parallel structure of the two traditions 
(Hittite [/Hurrian] and Greek) and the individual bits of parallelism 
are obvious. “Cognate” figures and events can be readily identified, 
(i) Greek Uranus, ‘heaven’, is matched by Hittite (/Hurrian) Anu — 
who is in origin the Sumerian (Mesopotamian) god of the sky. (ii) As 
Uranus is emasculated by Cronus, using a toothed sickle, so Anu is 
emasculated by Kumarbi, who uses his own teeth for the job; that is, 
Cronus equals Kumarbi . 35 (iii) Cronus swallows his children as Rhea 
bears them, holding them imprisoned within his gullet; Kumarbi car- 
ries within his own body several children, the offspring of Anu . 36 (iv) 
Cronus swallows a stone, intending to ingest his son Zeus; Kumarbi 
exclaims that he wants to eat his son Tessub, and soon after, in the 
damaged Hittite text, Kumarbi has a stone in his mouth, a stone that 
will be set up upon the ground as an object of worshipful adoration — 
like the Delphic stone set up by Zeus, (v) As Cronus regurgitates his 
offspring — it was mother Gaea’s doing, says Hesiod — so Kumarbi 
“births” those gods entrapped within himself 37 (in the damaged text the 
“[ ] Fate Goddesses” assist in delivery; as the Fate Goddesses are rou- 
tinely accompanied by the Mother Goddesses, we likely should restore 
their names in the gap preceding “Fate Goddesses”), (vi) Zeus — the 
sky-god, armed with thunderbolts — vanquishes Cronus to become 
divine sovereign; just so, Tessub, the storm-god, defeats Kumarbi 


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(= Cronus) and takes the throne of heaven: Tessub corresponds to 
Zeus. 38 

One subtle difference between the Greek and Hittite traditions 
involves the nature of sovereign succession. In Hesiod’s account, the 
reigning king is overthrown by his own son; in the Hittite myth, the 
reigning king is overthrown by the son of the previous king — two 
families thus alternating on the throne (i.e., Alalu : — Anu 2 — Kumarbq — 
Tessub 2 ). 39 This distinction leads on to another interesting observation. 
As Hoffner notes, the struggles for the throne in the Hittite account pit 
two fundamentally different types of beings against each other - celestial 
gods against netherworld gods: 

In Kumarbi’s camp are Alalu, Kumarbi’s vizier Mukisanu, 
the Great Sea God, the Sea God’s vizier Impaluri, the Sea 
God’s daughter Sertapsuruhi, Hedammu, Daganzipa (Earth), 

Silver, Ullikummi, the Irsirra-deities, and probably Ubelluri 
(who lives under the earth) . 

In Tessub’s camp are Anu, Tasmisu/Suwaliyat, Hebat, 
Hebat’s maidservant Takiti, Suaska /ISHTAR, the divine 
bulls Seri and Hurri, the Sun and Moon Gods, the War God 
Astabi, Tessub’s brother the Aranzah River (= the Tigris), 
the Mountain God Kanzura, KA.ZAL, and NAM. HE. 40 

The structure is paralleled in Hesiod’s Theogony: two different sorts of 
divine beings oppose each other — the gods of Mt. Olympus and the 
Titan gods. Olympus is already in Hesiod’s work practically equated 
with the celestial realm of heaven, 41 as in the poet’s description of Zeus’ 
furious and decisive onslaught against the Titans (Theogony 687—99): 

No longer Zeus withheld his warrior-rage, but now at once 
His breast was filled with wrath, and all his might 
Revealed; and down from heaven and Olympus Zeus 
Came hurling lightning — time and time again; the bolts 690 
Flew thick from out his sturdy hand, with thunderbolt and 

One — then another — rolling out a fearsome flame. 

And life-endowing earth did bellow — burning up all round, 

The boundless wood howled loud with fire all round. 

The ground all seethed, and boiling up were ocean’s streams 695 

And fruitless sea. A torrid blast closed round 

The earth-born Titans; flame unspeakable stretched to 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

The upper air; though strong, their eyes went blind 
From flashing glare of thunderbolt and lightning-flame. 42 

On the other hand, there are the Titans. In this same scene, Hesiod 
identifies them as “earth-born” — chthonian — the Titans who will 
become denizens of the Netherworld after being vanquished by Zeus. 
While the etymology of Greek Titenes [TiTf|V£s] ‘Titan’ is uncertain, 43 
the idea that they were originally chthonian in opposition to the “heav- 
enly” Olympians is common; thus, West writes of the Titans: 

There can be no certainty that they were ever worshipped: 
they may have existed from the beginning as ‘the for- 
mer gods’ ‘or the gods of the underworld’, a mythological 
antithesis to the gods of the present and of the upper world. 44 

This parallelism persists as the Hittite myth continues to unfold 
in the Song of Ullikummi. A mammoth rock conceives, impregnated 
by the netherworld Kumarbi, in order to bring forth a monstrous stone 
giant that will remove Tessub from the kingship of heaven. Hesiod 
tells how “gargantuan Earth” ( Gaia pelore [Focia TrsAobpri]; Theogony 
821) conceives, impregnated by Tartarus — that primeval being and 
netherworld locale — in order to bring forth a monstrous dragon to 
depose Zeus and in his stead “rule over both mortals and immortals” 
( Theogony 837). In both traditions, the reigning king of heaven has a 
desperate fight on his hands, though the two differ in the telling of that 
tale. Hesiod speaks of Zeus’ quick and definitive response to Typhoeus — 
a powerful, unrelenting attack that boils the seas and melts the earth. In 
the Hittite version, on the other hand, Tessub realizes victory only after 
he has suffered a great setback in battle, subsequent to which Ullikummi 
is weakened, being cut off from his perch on the shoulder of Ubelluri, 
by the intervention of other gods — notably Ea and the “primeval gods.” 
Though Hesiod makes no mention of it, there is, nonetheless, an 
interesting Greek comparandum at this point, if not strict parallelism. 
In his second-century compendium of Greek myth, the Bibliotheca, 
the mythographer Apollodorus (1.6.3) writes that in his fight against 
Typhon (as Apollodorus names the monster), Zeus brandishes a sickle 
of adamant, the same — or same type of — cutting implement that Cronus 
had used to castrate Uranus when he was joined in love with Gaea — a 
primordial severing of heaven (Uranus) from earth (Gaea). Just so, in the 
Song of Ullikummi, the same instrument — the primeval copper cutting 
tool - is used to undercut Tessub ’s enemy, Ullikummi, that had been 


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used originally to divide heaven from earth. But while the use of the 
copper saw follows Tessub’s setback, and somewhat evens the score, the 
adamantine sickle results in a setback for Zeus, as Typhon is able to wres- 
tle it away from Zeus and with it cut the tendons from Zeus’ hands and 
feet. The hobbled king of heaven is then helplessly imprisoned in the 
dragon’s cave in Cilicia, but is saved through the intervention of other 
deities — Hermes and Aegipan, according to Apollodorus 45 (compare 
the intervention of Ea et al. in the Song of Ullikummi) — who recover 
the removed tendons and fit them back into Zeus’ hands and feet. Zeus 
then renews his attack and vanquishes Typhon, though only after yet 
more divine intervention — those goddesses called the Fates trick the 
monster into tasting certain fruits that rob him of strength . 46 

The Hittite episodes of chthonic LAMMA, Silver, and Heda- 
mmu - intervening between Tessub’s defeat of Kumarbi (= Zeus’ 
defeat of Cronus and the Titans) and the appearance of the rock-born 
Ullikummi (= the appearance of Earth-born Typhoeus) have no coun- 
terpart in Hesiod’s Theogony: Hesiod relates no repeated attempts to 
storm the throne of heaven and wrench kingship away from Zeus . 47 
Once again, however, Apollodorus shows tighter agreement with the 
Hittite tradition than does Hesiod. Prior to the birth of Typhon, writes 
Apollodorus (i. 6 . 1-2), 48 Zeus and heaven are attacked by yet other 
earthborn creatures: 

Vexed by the fate of the Titans, Gea gave birth to Giants, 
fathered by Uranus. They were without equal in the enor- 
mity of their bodies and were unbeatable in might; their 
appearance was terrible — hair fell long from their head and 
chin, and for feet they had the scales of dragons . 49 

The giants assail heaven, hurling rocks and flaming trees. A confeder- 
acy of Olympian deities and the mortal hero Heracles counterattack 
the giants. After relating several individual duels in this Gigantomachy, 
Apollodorus brings the episode summarily to a close with an affirmation 
of the victorious defense of heaven: “and all the others Zeus destroyed, 
hurling his thunderbolts; and Heracles shot them all with arrows as they 

The Babylonian Enuma Elis 

The earliest discovered fragments of the Babylonian creation account, 
the Enuma Elis (‘When on high’ — the opening words of the epic), 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

came to the attention of scholars late in the nineteenth century; the 
succeeding decades brought discoveries of additional cuneiform tablets 
containing portions of the work. The date of its composition remains 
a matter of disagreement: some scholars assign the work to the early 
second millennium BC, during the Old Babylonian period; currently, 
however, it is more commonly dated to the late second millennium, that 
period when the worship of Marduk, protagonist of the epic, became 
prominent. The Enuma Elis was recited annually as a part of the Baby- 
lonian New Year’s festival. 

That portion of the tale most pertinent to the task at hand goes like 
this. 50 In the beginning only Apsu, the fresh waters (male), and Tiamat, 
the sea waters (female), 51 existed. But eventually, within their waters, 
the divine pair Lahmu and Lahamu (‘silt’, masculine and feminine) take 
shape; these then engender Anshar and Kishar. The latter pair produce a 
son Anu, said to be the equal of Anshar and the rival of his fathers. Con- 
tinuing the crescendo of potent progeny, Anu in turn engenders a son, 
Ea, called the “master of his fathers.” These most recent generations of 
the gods behave raucously, disturbing Tiamat (“they troubled Tiamat’s 
belly,” 1.23). Apsu and Tiamat take counsel; encouraged by his vizier, 
Mummu, Apsu determines that the offending deities must be destroyed. 
Ea, however, acts preemptively: he causes a sleep to come upon Apsu, 
whom he slays as Apsu slumbers, and he imprisons Mummu. Hav- 
ing vanquished his enemies, Ea and his wife Damkina produce a son, 
Marduk — a being of perfection, surpassing the members of previous 

Anu, Marduk’s grandfather, then stirs up storms that distress Tia- 
mat as well as certain other gods who have aligned themselves with her 
and who urge her to respond and to avenge her slain consort, Apsu. 
Preparations are made for war — preparations that include Tiamat (here 
[1.132] called “Mother Hubur,” a name frequently applied to the river 
of the Netherworld 52 ) producing eleven monstrous offspring (dragon 
and serpent, inter alios), and the appointing of the god Kingu (her con- 
sort) to be commander, to whom Tiamat gives the “Tablets of Fate” — 
a symbol of power. 53 

Discovering Tiamat’s intentions, Ea becomes somber and angry, 
but then calming himself goes to his grandfather Anshar to alert him of 
the advancing army. Anshar s reaction is likewise one of despondence; 
he sends Ea and then Anu to try to stop Tiamat, but both in turn 
retreat before Tiamat’s force. In deep distress, Anshar announces to the 
gods that Marduk shall be their deliverer. Marduk accepts the chal- 
lenge upon the condition that he be given supremacy among the gods. 


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Being summoned, Lahmu and Lahamu join Anshar; and after a ban- 
quet, the gods set up for Marduk a throne and bestow on him kingship 
over all. 

Marduk ventures out to meet Tiamat in battle. He ensnares her 
with a net, beside which the four winds (East, West, North, and South) 
have been stationed; and as Tiamat stretches wide her mouth, Marduk 
drives in a storm that prevents her mouth from shutting. As the winds 
distend her belly, Marduk shoots an arrow through Tiamat s gaping 
jaws and kills her. Marduk ensnares and imprisons the gods who had 
followed Tiamat - he binds the eleven monstrous creatures (which will 
later be transformed into statutes and stationed at the gate of Ea’s house) 
and Kingu, from whom Marduk seizes the Tablets of Fate. He crushes 
Tiamat’s skull, severs her arteries and splits her body into two halves, 
with one of which he creates the heavens, filling them with luminous 
bodies — constellations, moon, sun — demarcating night and day. From 
the remainder of her body he fashions features of earth: from her head 
he forms mountains, with the Euphrates and Tigris flowing from her 
eyes, and so forth. In a communal act of reaffirmation, all the gods then 
acknowledge Marduk as king. 

After announcing plans for the construction of his city, Babylon, 
Marduk orchestrates the creation of humankind. The rebel Kingu is 
brought forth and executed. Out of the blood that flows from his severed 
veins, Ea creates the first humans. 

Though the structures of the Babylonian epic clearly constitute a 
less strict parallel to Hesiod’s Theogony than do those of the Kumarbi 
cycle, fundamental motifs common to the Greek and Hittite myths 
recur in the Enuma Elis — with the Babylonian account showing, in 
some instances, even closer agreement with Hesiod, (i) In both the 
Theogony and the Enuma Elis, for example, the first beings to exist 
are deified geophysical entities that will engender ensuing generations: 
Chaos, Gaea, Tartarus; Tiamat, Apsu. (ii) In all three traditions a series 
of divine sovereigns unfolds generationally — with each generation in 
some way surpassing the preceding, and the series culminating in the 
birth of the preeminent heavenly king: Zeus, Tessub, Marduk. (iii) All 
entail the mutilation or murder of some primeval male deity: Cronus 
and Kumarbi emasculate Uranus and Anu respectively; Ea slays Apsu; 
moreover, in the Greek and Babylonian traditions (a) the injured party is 
caught off guard (Uranus preparing to have intercourse with Gaea, Apsu 
asleep under Ea’s spell) and (b) the perpetrator of the act (Cronus, Ea) is 
both the son of the Sky (Uranus, Anu) and the father of the protagonist 


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(Zeus, Marduk). (iv) Primeval mothers - Gaea and Tiamat - produce 
monstrous offspring that will battle against the preeminent rulers of 
heaven — Zeus and Marduk — in an effort to secure cosmic rule for 
the offspring or the consort of that mother — Typhoeus and Kingu; the 
monster(s) is/ are defeated, after which the gods affirm, or reaffirm, the 
sovereignty of the vanquisher — the Olympians urge Zeus “to be king 
and to rule the immortals,” the gods assembled round Marduk bestow 
on him the title Lugaldimmerankia (‘king of the gods of heaven and the 
Netherworld’). Still other parallels can be adduced ; 54 these are sufficient 
to give the reader the picture. 

The Theogony of Dunnu 

The Hittite Kumarbi cycle and the Babylonian Enuma Elis are not the 
only examples of Near Eastern traditions paralleling Hesiod’s kingship- 
in-heaven myth. Also from Babylonia comes the much shorter and only 
partially preserved theogony of the city of Dunnu, dated to the Late 
Babylonian period . 55 The work has been judged particularly interesting, 
vis-a-vis Hesiod’s Theogony, for the order of appearance of certain 
of the primeval beings. “ ... In the beginning ...” — so the fractured 
opening lines declare — there was Hain and Earth, who then produce 
two children: Sea, a daughter — who is created by an act of plowing — and 
Amakandu, a son, conceived through intercourse. After being seduced 
by his mother and killing his father (and so becoming sovereign of 
Dunnu), Amakandu marries Sea, his sister, and they produce a son, 
Lahar. This Lahar, who kills his own father — thus becoming the 
new sovereign — has intercourse with his mother as well, and by her 
engenders a son — whose name is lost — and a daughter, River. These 
two likewise consort incestuously, and the nameless son kills both 
of his parents — and so the generational saga of parent-killing and 
sibling-marrying continues. 

Investigators have called attention to the fact that Sea - who 
is seemingly born out of the Earth (via ploughing) — appears in this 
theogony before River. In a similar fashion, Hesiod’s Theogony presents 
Pontus, the Sea, as borne parthogenetically by Gaea ‘ Earth ’; while 
Oceanus — the River that flows around the rim of earth and the father of 
rivers — is born afterward. The pronounced incestuousness of the Dunnu 
myth (extending beyond the generations enumerated here) has also been 
compared with the numerous incestuous sibling relations among the 
Titans; the Babylonian mother— son sexual unions are especially singled 

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out, as both Greek Pontus (“Sea” again) and Uranus have intercourse 
with their mother Gaea. 56 

Sanchuniathons Phoenician History 

In some respects, this is the most intriguing of the Hesiodic Theogony’s 
Near Eastern counterparts. A purported Phoenician version of the 
kingship in heaven myth is recorded in Greek by Herennius Philo — 
commonly called Philo of Byblos (first/second century AD). Philo 
claims that his notably euhemeristic work is the translation of an 
ancient Phoenician account preserved by Sanchuniathon, 57 a “poly- 
math and ardent researcher” (FGrH 790 F 1 §24), 58 reported to have 
lived prior to (or about the time of) the Trojan war. Prefacing his 
Phoenician tale, Philo makes mention of two sources (which are possi- 
bly intended to be one and the same) that this Sanchuniathon discovered 
and utilized: (i) the works of a still more ancient figure named Taau- 
tos (whom the Egyptians call Thoth and the Greeks Hermes), said to 
be the inventor of the symbols and practice of writing; and (ii) cer- 
tain hidden texts of (the temples of?) Ammon, written in an arcane 
script. 59 

The fundamental structure of Sanchuniathons theogony is, by 
now, a familiar one, involving four successive generations, stretching 
from a founding figure who plays a comparatively minor role to a 
sovereign storm-god. Philo begins his rendition of the Phoenician tra- 
dition with “a certain Elioun” (‘high one’, a term known from various 
Semitic documents, including the Hebrew Bible 60 ) and his female part- 
ner Berouth. They produce a son Epigeios (the Autochthon), whom 
they would later call Uranus, and a daughter named Ge (i.e., Gaea). 
Upon the death of his father Elioun (killed in some encounter with 
wild beasts), Uranus replaces him as sovereign and takes Ge, his sis- 
ter, to be his wife; together Uranus and Ge produce four children — 
El, Baitylos, Dagon, and Atlas, the first three of whom are indepen- 
dently known to be Phoenician gods. 61 El — whom Philo also names 
as Cronus — eventually turns against his father, Uranus, avenging his 
mother, Ge: Uranus has abused her sexually and tried to destroy her chil- 
dren. Cronus and his allies make war on Uranus and depose him; Cronus 
takes the throne. One of the trophies of this intergenerational war is the 
concubine of Uranus, whom Cronus gives to his brother Dagan for a 
wife. The concubine, already pregnant by Uranus, then gives birth to 
a son Demarous, whose name appears to occur in Ugaritic — the lan- 
guage of a West Semitic people closely related to the Phoenicians — as 


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an epithet of the storm-god Baal, or Hadad. 62 The deposed Uranus 
eventually tries to regain his throne by trickery and by force, but his 
efforts are unsuccessful; in the thirty-second year of his reign, Cronus 
ambushes and emasculates Uranus, his father and former sovereign. In 
time, Cronus assigns sovereignty to Demarous - whom Philo at that 
point in his tale identifies as “Zeus Demarous or Hadad, 63 king of 
gods” - and to the goddess Astarte. 

Even from this brief summary of the theogony attributed to 
Sanchuniathon, it is clear that Philo of Byblos was well acquainted with 
Greek mythic traditions. He, in fact, accuses the Greeks - and Hesiod 
explicitly — of having taken over their myths from other peoples — dra- 
matically modifying adopted traditions for the sake of entertainment 
(FGrH 790 F 2 §40): 

Thus Hesiod and the celebrated poets of the epic cycle fabri- 
cated their own theogonies, gigantomachies, titanomachies 
and castrations, and in popularizing these they trumped 

Hesiod antedated Philo by almost a millennium; even so, this is not 
simply a case of Philo committing the same sort of literary pilfering of 
which he accuses the epic poets. While the Phoenician History is unde- 
niably infused with Greek mythic influences, scholars currently tend to 
view Philos’ theogony as resting upon a native Phoenician tradition, 64 
though the form in which Philo knew that tradition perhaps dates to 
the Hellenistic period rather than the second millennium BC. 65 Espe- 
cially noteworthy are the several points at which Philo’s account departs 
from Hesiod’s, and in doing so agrees with the other Near Eastern ver- 
sions summarized above. For example — there are four generations of 
sovereign figures rather than three; El (= Cronus = Kumarbi) fights 
with and emasculates his predecessor Epigeios (= Uranus = Anu), par- 
alleling the Hittite tradition, as opposed to the Greek with castration 
occurring without a physical struggle; and so on. 66 

Hesiod’s Near Eastern Sources 

I began the preceding section by noting that the Phoenician theogony 
is in some ways the most intriguing of the Near Eastern parallels to 
Hesiod’s kingship-in-heaven tradition. How so? 

The historical Greeks are descendants of Indo-Europeans who 
made their way into the Balkan Peninsula — probably arriving in 


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the last quarter of the third millennium BC — relative newcomers to 
the Mediterranean and geographically positioned on the cusp of the 
ancient Near East. Hesiod’s theogonic tale of a succession of divine 
sovereigns - Uranus, Cronus, Zeus - is almost certainly not an inher- 
ited Indo-European tradition, but, as various scholars have sought 
to demonstrate, one borrowed from the Near East (just as Philo of 
Byblos claims) - as seems practically self-evident in light of the above 
examination of widespread parallel traditions, attested from an early 
time . 67 The Hittites of Anatolia, possessing a well-attested version 
of this tradition, are themselves an Indo-European people, though, 
as we saw, the Hittites acquired their kingship-in-heaven tradition 
from their non-Indo-European neighbors to the east, the Hurrians, 
whose gods - the storm god Tessub et al. - play leading roles in the 

The cultural indebtedness of the Greeks to the Phoenicians is well 
known. Witness the alphabet: that most utilitarian - and, possibly, most 
significant - of Greek gifts to modernity is an adaptation of the conso- 
nantal script of the Phoenicians. In other words, it was the Phoenicians 
who, in a certain sense (and only in a certain sense), taught the Greeks 
how to write . 68 While we would doubtless look too myopically were we 
to seek a single conduit by which Near Eastern influence came upon the 
Greeks, the Phoenicians must be judged likely candidates in matters of 
cultural transference within and out of eastern Mediterranean regions. 
Of those places where the Greeks could have acquired the Phoenician 
script, Cyprus is probably the most likely locale . 69 With its permanent 
and thriving Greek and Phoenician presence in the early first millen- 
nium BC and its mercantile, cultural, and political intercourse with 
Anatolia, Egypt, Syria-Palestine, and Mesopotamia , 70 Cyprus must be 
considered a no less likely locale for the Greek acquisition of other Near 
Eastern ideas — including, especially, mythic traditions — and, hence, the 
Phoenicians of Cyprus the most active of catalysts in the process . 71 Per- 
haps Philo of Byblos was not so far off the mark when he imagined it 
was from the Phoenicians that Hesiod and the epic poets acquired their 
theogonies and castration tales. 

The Works and Days 

Consider how helpful the noble poets of old have been. 
Orpheus taught us mystic rites and to abstain from bloodshed, 
Musaeus showed us remedies for sickness — oracles too, and 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

Hesiod the working of the earth, the seasons of the crops, the 
turning of the soil. 

And god-like Homer — by what did he gain honor and fame, 

Except by the useful teaching of the deployment, valor, and 
arming of men? 

Aristophanes, Frogs 1030-36 

“The working of the earth”; “the seasons of the crops”; “the turn- 
ing of the soil” — at least superficially, this is the stuff of which Hesiod’s 
Works and Days is made - though not uniquely so, in two respects. First, 
the poet is credited with having also composed the Great Works, a poem, 
preserved only in fragments, that must have similarly treated agricultural 
matters, and the also fragmentary Astronomy, which self-evidently dealt 
with astronomical and calendrical phenomena. Second, Works and Days 
is not only a farmer’s manual and almanac but also a repository of practi- 
cal advice and moral precepts. The Great Works likewise contained such 
admonitions, as did - and presumably even more so - Hesiod’s all-but- 
lost poem entitled the Precepts of Chiron, presented as the teachings of 
the centaur Chiron to his young pupil Achilles. 

The didactic Works and Days, composed in the same epic 
hexameters familiar from the Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, 
is couched in the form of instructions (‘I would speak [ mutheomai 
(gu 0 £opoa)] truth’ [line 10]) to Perses, Hesiod’s wayward brother — 
profligate, greedy, lazy, and, thus, in danger of becoming (and perhaps 
already) destitute — and to an anonymous body of kings, 72 who are 
willing to manipulate justice for the sake of gain. At the heart of 
Hesiod’s expositions are the opposing fundamental notions of dike 
(Skp) and hubris (u( 3 pis)): dike is often translated as ‘justice’ - the sense 
of Hesiod’s usage being a more specifically legal than general one — 
or, in some Hesiodic contexts, the legal process of determining justice, 
that is, ‘judgment’; 73 its oppositional term, hubris, denotes ‘violence’ 
or, more concretely, ‘an outrage’. 

Hesiod portrays his advice and warnings to Perses as being occa- 
sioned by a conflict in which the two brothers are embroiled, a conflict 
stemming from the division of their inheritance (lines 27—41). Perses 
received his share but has thrown it after judges, “gift- gobbling kings,” 74 
seemingly hoping thereby to acquire greater wealth through litigation; 
now he is on the threshold of impoverishment and has already been 
begging from Hesiod, who will assist him no more (see lines 393—7). 
Hesiod urges Perses to let the two of them settle their own differences 
by that straight dike which is from Zeus. 75 


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Hesiod admonishes Perses to work - to avoid that Eris (‘Strife’, 
one of the parthenogenetically produced daughters of Nyx named in 
the Theogony ) who leads to “evil war” and who entices Perses to loi- 
ter at the courts, gawking at legal wrangling - but to follow, instead, 
that other Eris (also a daughter of Nyx, contrastively paired with her 
homonymous sister) who moves humans to strive to labor gainfully 
(lines 11-41; Hesiod similarly knows a good and bad Zelos ‘Envy’ [see 

And why must humankind work? It is ultimately because, reveals 
the poet, Prometheus stole fire for mortals ( Works and Days 42-9): 

The gods keep hid from men the means of life; 

For else in just a single day you’d easily do work to have 

What’s needed even for a year - a year of indolence no less. 

And right away you’d hang the rudder up above the hearth; 45 

The fields by labor-hardy mules and oxen tilled would 

But Zeus, instead, he hid it, roused to anger in his heart, 

Because Prometheus deceived him, crooked-cunning one; 

So Zeus wrought baneful sorrow on mankind. 76 

Hesiod has here returned to the misogynistic tale of his Theogony — 
the sending of the first woman, Pandora, to men as punishment for 
Prometheus’ theft — though in the Works and Days he relates the myth in 
fuller form (lines 60—105), telling how Pandora opened ajar containing 
all ills and how these escaped into the world so that humankind’s former 
life of Utopian ease was transmuted into one of suffering and toil. 

Keeping to the theme of the deterioration of humanity, the poet 
immediately follows up his Pandora episode with the narrative, logos 
(Aoyos), of the five ages of mankind (lines 106—201). The first was a 
golden age, a generation of mortals created by the gods in that time 
when heaven’s king was Cronus: their long lives were idyllic — free of 
sorrow and toil, enjoying earth’s spontaneous bounty, beloved of the 
gods. After the passing of this age, the gods created a silver generation 
of mortal beings, inferior to the first: their childhood was long — a 
hundred years — but as adults their lives were short, being given to 
deeds of wrongdoing and irreverence toward the gods. Zeus put an 
end to the silver-age beings and created a third generation — a bronze 
race, said not to be “the same as” the preceding silver age (though not 
explicitly identified as inferior). Theirs was a mighty race of bronze- 
armored warriors, but by their war-making they brought themselves 


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to extinction. With their passing from the earth, Zeus created a fourth 
generation, one of heroic demigods ( hemitheoi [f]pl0£Oi]) — the warriors 
of the Theban and Trojan wars — some of whom had died in those 
conflicts, but others of whom Zeus blessed with an idyllic existence 
in the Elysian Isles (where Cronus, released from his imprisonment in 
Tartarus, ruled as their king, according to some manuscripts of Works 
and Days). These noble heroes were immediately succeeded by the race 
of iron, the people of Hesiod’s own day - and he rues his lot, wishing 
he had either “died before or been born after” that age (line 175). Of 
the four metallic generations that Zeus created (setting aside the race 
of heroes), it is this one on which Hesiod lavishes the most attention. 77 
The poet begins his description in the present tense, slipping quickly 
into a prophetic future. Their lot is one of labor and sorrow, though 
they will be a mixed group — good being mingled with evil, as the poet 
has been interpreted to say. In time they will experience yet greater 
degradation — the newborn will have gray locks; family member will 
turn against family member, and friend against friend; violence and 
wickedness will prosper and be praised. Zelos ‘Envy’ - that is, the bad 
Zelos, associated with the bad Eris (as opposed to the good Zelos, 
affiliated with the good Eris) 7 * - will be ever present: 

And Zelos shall walk with each and every wretched man, 195 
Cacophonous and evil-reveling, and hateful-faced. 

And then Olympus bound, both Nemesis and Aidos, 79 
Their lovely frames enrobed in cloaks of white, 

To join the race of deathless gods they’ll pass 

From wide-stretched earth, and humankind forsake. . . . 200 

In the end, the iron race will stand helpless in the face of evil and perish 
at Zeus’s hand. The finality of Hesiod’s prophecy is palpable: there is no 
suggestion that the race ofiron will continue upon the earth; presumably, 
only gods last — yet Hesiod conceives of the possibility of having “been 
born after” (and to this we shall return). 

Hesiod then appends to the myth of the five ages a tale meant 
for the unjust kings — the fable ( ainos [odvos]) of the hawk and the 
nightingale (lines 202—12). There was a hawk that snared a nightingale 
within his claws. The hawk soared into the heavens with its prey; and as 
the helpless songbird shrieked, the hawk cruelly spoke a muthos (pO0os): 

Oh why the screams, you wretch? One stronger holds you now. 
And you shall go where’er I take you, songstress though you be; 

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A meal of you I’ll make - or maybe set you free - it’s up to me. 
That one’s a fool who’d choose against the mightier to 

stand; 210 

He goes in want of victory and suffers shame no less than pain. 

The poet’s message to the kings seems truncated; even so, his insin- 
uation of their arrogant intimidations cannot have been lost on his 
audience. 80 

Hesiod: A View to the East, Part 2 

Does Hesiod’s Works and Days also bespeak a Greek indebtedness to 
the Near East? Undoubtedly so — in both particulars and generalities. 
West, Perry, and other scholars 81 have observed, for example, that Greek 
fables, of which Hesiod’s hawk-and-nightingale is the earliest known, 
find parallels in older, Babylonian fables — even exact matches at times, 
as in the case of the Babylonian fable of the gnat and the elephant, 
about which Perry, 82 translating Ebeling, 83 writes, “In this case one 
may almost speak of the translation of a Babylonian original into Greek 
or at least of a paraphrase.” The genre of the fable in Mesopotamia is 
not, however, unique to the Babylonians; many are preserved among the 
literary remains of the Sumerians, the first Mesopotamian civilization 
to develop a means of writing. Among the Sumerian fables, Wolcot 84 
has identified two that are close in sense to Hesiod’s: one tells of a lion 
that has seized a squealing pig, the other of a butcher preparing a pig, 
also squealing, for slaughter. 

A pig which was about to be slaughtered by the pig-butcher 
squealed. (The butcher said:) “Your ancestors and forebears 
walked this road, and now you too are walking it, so why (?) 
are you squealing?” 85 

In each instance the helpless pig’s fate lies in the hands — or jaws — of its 
captor, despite the victim’s annoying cries. With Hesiod’s hawk-and- 
nightingale fable, addressed as it is to the kings, one might also compare 
the Sumerian fable of The Heron and the Turtle , 86 A turtle, depicted as 
a quarrelsome, trouble -making predator, upends the nest of a heron, 
spilling her young into the water, and then tears at the bird’s head with 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

his claws, so that blood streams down upon her breast. The heron cries 
and pleads her case before “the king,” the god Enki: 

Let my king judge my case, and give me verdict! Let Enki 
judge my case, and give me verdict! 

The bird lays out her complaint to the king, who responds by com- 
manding his minister Isimud to build some device, presumably for the 
bird’s protection. 87 

Fables constitute only one element of the broader genre of didac- 
tic, or wisdom, literature — a genre well known from the ancient Near 
East. This is not to suggest that it is a genre unknown elsewhere - 
certainly collections of gnomic sayings and ethical exhortations are 
widely attested among the worlds peoples, both ancient and modern. 
West 8S (following in part Chadwick and Chadwick 89 ) provides a suc- 
cinct but illuminating survey of wisdom literature worldwide. While, as 
one would expect, fundamental cross-cultural similarities are detectable 
globally, Works and Days shows a particular closeness to ancient Near 
Eastern wisdom traditions. West observes: 

Hesiod’s poem does . . . show closer formal similarities to 
Near Eastern texts than to any of those from other litera- 
tures that were surveyed. . . . If we did not know that it came 
from Greece, and we had to try and place it on the basis of 
its resemblances to other works of wisdom, we should be 
inclined to put it somewhere near the ancient Near East. 90 

Indeed, one familiar with the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible — 
the Christian Old Testament — can hardly read Works and Days without 
being reminded of that Biblical text; this is most especially so of the 
long section that immediately follows Hesiod’s hawk-and-nightingale 
fable, beginning with lines 213—2143, 

But you, O Perses, attend to dike, and do not nurture hubris ; 

For hubris is an evil to the lowly man 

and extending through line 382, 

And if your heart within your breast should long for wealth, 
Then do these things and work — in work after work. 


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The book of Proverbs is quite likely the best known of Near 
Eastern wisdom texts to most readers of this Companion. Portions of 
the Biblical text appear to date to the eighth century BC - Hesiod’s 
own century. There are, however, many far older, and generally less 
familiar, examples of wisdom literature from the Near East. The genre 
is well attested within the Sumerian literary corpus (dating as early 
as the mid-third millennium BC). Some examples are known from 
Sumerian-language texts, such as The Instructions ofSuruppag, a collection 
of proverbial instructions said to have been shared by an ancient man of 
wisdom, Suruppag, with his son Zi-ud-sura, long, long ago. Consider, 
for instance, the partially preserved lines 22—7: 

You should not loiter about where there is a quarrel; you 
should not let the quarrel make you a witness. You should 
not let (?) yourself. . . in a quarrel. You should not cause 
a quarrel; . . . the gate of the palace. . . . Stand aside from a 
quarrel, . . . you should not take (?) another road. 91 

Other Sumerian wisdom texts are preserved in Akkadian (the languages 
and dialects of the Assyrians and Babylonians) translations of Sumerian 

Among several Akkadian wisdom works that have not been 
demonstrated to be translations from Sumerian is the Counsels of Wisdom 
(second half of the second millennium BC), a text that is impressionis- 
tically close to the spirit of Works and Days, showing several particular 
similarities, though of a sort common to Near Eastern didactic tradition. 
Let us consider as a single example Works and Days 706, 717—21: 

Beware the vengeance of immortal gods. 92 706 

Don’t ever dare to mock a man for baneful soul- 
Destroying poverty, a thing that’s given by immortal gods. 

A sparing tongue — it is the treasure best of mortal kind, 

And greatest pleasure, moving in a way that’s measured. 720 
If evil you should speak, you yourself will soon be spoken 
evil of. 

With the above compare the following lines from Counsels of Wisdom: 

] the lowly, take pity on him (56) 

Do not despise the miserable and [ ], 

Do not wrinkle up your nose haughtily at them. 

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One’s god will be angry with him for that, 

It is displeasing to Samas, 93 he will requite him with evil. 

Hold your tongue, watch what you say. (26) 

A man’s pride: the great value on your lips. 

Insolence and insult should be abhorrent to you. 

Speak nothing slanderous, no untrue report. 

The frivolous person is of no account. 94 

Similar maxims find expression in the Biblical book of Proverbs, as, for 
example, in the following verses: 

He who oppresses the poor insults his Maker, 14:31 

He who is generous to the needy honours him. 

He who sneers at the poor insults his Maker; 17:5 

And he who gloats over another’s ruin will answer for it. 

Gossip can be sharp as a sword, 12:18 

But the tongue of the wise heals. 

A clever man conceals his knowledge, 12:23 

But a stupid man broadcasts his folly. 

When you see someone over-eager to speak, 29:20 

There will be more hope for a fool than for him. 95 

In Egypt, wisdom texts - constituting a well-developed genre, 
typically dubbed Instructions - span the vast gulf of time that stretches 
from the Old Kingdom (c. 2300 BC) to the beginning of the Christian 
era. 96 Compare with the several texts cited above the following lines 
(24.9—17 and 22.7—16, respectively) from the Egyptian wisdom text 
called the Instruction of Amen-em-Opet, a work (perhaps composed c. 
1200—1000 BC) that shows particular closeness to both Hesiod’s Works 
and Days and to the Biblical book of Proverbs: 97 

Do not laugh at a blind man nor tease a dwarf 

Nor injure the affairs of the lame. (10) 

Do not tease a man who is in the hand of the god, 98 

Nor be fierce of face against him if he errs. 

For man is clay and straw, 

And the god is his builder. 

He is tearing down and building up every day. (15) 

He makes a thousand poor men as he wishes, 

(Or) makes a thousand men as overseers, 

When he is in his hour of life. 

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Sit thou down at the hands of the god, 

And thy silence will cast them" down. . . . 

Empty not thy belly [of words] to everybody, 

Nor damage (thus) the regard for thee. 

Spread not thy words to the common people, 

Nor associate to thyself one (too) outgoing of heart. 

Better is a man whose talk (remains) in his belly (15) 

Than he who speaks it out injuriously. 100 

Another Egyptian didactic text that has close affinities with Hesiod’s 
Works and Days is the Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy. Languishing in 
prison after being falsely accused of treason, Ankhsheshonqy, a priest 
of the sun-god Pre‘, etches lamentations and words of wisdom on pot- 
sherds that he regularly sends off to his son. The work is later than 
the Instruction of Amen-em-Opet: the papyrus document that preserves 
the Ankhsheshonqy text perhaps dates to the period of the Ptolemies 
(the Macedonian rulers of Egypt following the death of Alexander the 
Great in the fourth century BC); composition of the text would be 
somewhat earlier. In this instance, however, it could conceivably be the 
case that the similarities are due to the influence of Works and Days, or 
other Greek sources, on the Egyptian text; strains of influence from the 
wisdom text called the Words of Ahiqar can also be detected. 101 

A widely disseminated work known from versions preserved in 
various languages of the Near East, the Words of Ahiqar is earliest attested 
in a fifth-century BC Aramaic document. 102 It tells the tale of one 
Ahiqar — depicted as a minister of the Assyrian monarchs Sennacherib 
(eighth to seventh centuries BC) and, in turn, his son Esarhaddon — 
who was unjustly accused of sedition and sentenced to death. His life 
was secretly spared by his executioner for favors previously rendered, 
and he was eventually vindicated and restored. Not least of the ways in 
which the work is reminiscent of Hesiod’s Works and Days is its blending 
of maxim and fable. 

The Five Ages of Mankind, Part 1 

Hesiod’s story of the five ages requires a closer look. For some scholars, 
such as West, it belongs securely under the rubric of Near Eastern — or 
at least Asian — influence: 

There is one major case of material in the Works and Days 
which must be supposed to have come to Greece from the 

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east: the Myth of Ages. It is a myth that could be told for its 
own sake, or to serve different purposes, and though it suits 
Hesiod’s purpose well enough, it has no necessary connec- 
tion with wisdom literature. 103 

Abstracting from the Hesiodic tale its essence, West concludes: 

When we subtract from Hesiod’s narrative all that seems 
to have been put in to do justice to “folk memory,” we 
are left with the doctrine of four metallic races, each of 
which is more sinful than its predecessor and quicker to age. 

The account of the last race is largely cast in the form of a 
prophecy. The scheme has striking oriental parallels. 104 

Let us consider the parallel eastern traditions, which emanate from both 
southwest and south Asia. 

The Book of Daniel The second chapter of the Biblical Book of 
Daniel preserves an account of a disturbing vision that came to the 
Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar (seventh to sixth centuries BC) 
in a dream. The king required not only that his own Chaldean wise 
men interpret the vision, but that they first clairvoyantly tell it to him. 
Unable to perform the preliminary assignment, the Babylonian sages 
were sentenced to death — though in the end they would be delivered 
through the actions of a young Jewish deportee to Babylon by the 
name of Daniel, to whom the interpretative task next fell. Daniel (2:32— 
6) announces the vision: Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a colossal 

The head of the image was of fine gold, its breast and arms 
of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet 
part iron and part clay. While you looked, a stone was hewn 
from a mountain, not by human hands; it struck the image 
on its feet of clay and shattered them. Then the iron, the 
clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all shattered 
to fragments and were swept away like the chaff before the 
wind from a threshing-floor in summer, until no trace of 
them remained. But the stone which struck the image grew 
into a great mountain filling the whole earth. That was the 

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And what of the interpretation? The vision was prophetic: the head of 
gold symbolized king Nebuchadnezzar and, continues Daniel (2:39—41): 

After you [Nebuchadnezzar] there shall arise another king- 
dom, inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom, of bronze, 
which shall have sovereignty over the whole world. And 
there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; as iron shat- 
ters and destroys all things, it shall break and shatter the whole 
earth. As, in your vision, the feet and toes were part potters 
clay and part iron, it shall be a divided kingdom. 

This last kingdom - which receives the most attention of all as Daniel 
continues to unfurl his prophecy — having feet mixed with clay, “shall 
be partly strong and partly brittle” (2:42): the interpretation - “so shall 
men mix with each other by intermarriage, but such alliances shall not 
be stable: iron does not mix with clay” (2:43). The kingdom that is 
symbolized by the hardest metal shall prove to be the weakest. It shall 
be destroyed by the stone, which, reveals Daniel, is the kingdom of 
God: “It shall shatter and make an end to all of these kingdoms, while 
it shall endure forever” (2:44). 

The parallelism between the Daniel account and Hesiod’s tale of 
the metallic generations is striking indeed — both in general outline and 
in particulars. A succession of kingdoms or generations — gold, silver, 
bronze, iron — will culminate in the prophetic destruction of the last. 
The silver stratum is explicitly stated to be weaker than the gold. To the 
last, the iron race or kingdom, most attention is paid: explicit reference 
is made to its “mixed” nature and to familial dysfunctionality. While 
the differences in theological particulars cannot be overstated, in both 
traditions the iron element will be doomed by divine intervention; what 
survives are the Olympian deities themselves in the prophetic tradition 
that Hesiod knows — it is the kingdom of God that will continue forever 
in Daniel’s prophetic message. As West (1997) 319 insightfully observes: 
“The rhetorical treatment of the disasters of the last age implies that 
the myth came to Greece not just as a raw story outline but in literary 
form, that is to say in poetic form.” The question that remains to be 
answered is, of course, “Whence came this logos to Greece?” 

Before going on, we should take notice that there is no stratum in 
Daniel’s account that corresponds to Hesiod’s age of heroes, sandwiched 
between the bronze and iron ages. Practically all classical scholars are in 
agreement that the heroic age represents an interpolation — a structural 
component that Hesiod, or Hesiod’s Greek source, introduced into the 

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traditional tale of a sequence of metallic races in order to harmonize 
that logos with essential Greek traditions about the Theban and Trojan 
wars. The heroes of those great expeditions, as West puts it, 

. . . had to be accommodated in any survey of man’s past. 

The position they occupy in Hesiod follows from the view 
that they were the people that preceded us ([line] 160), cou- 
pled with an unwillingness to identify them with the Bronze 
race — perhaps because the epics showed them as users of 
iron. 105 

Iran A similar Iranian account is preserved in two Zoroastrian works: 
the Vahtnan Yast and the Denkard, Pahlavi (Middle Iranian) versions of 
two books of the Avesta (the collection of sacred Zoroastrian texts) that 
have not survived in their earlier Avestan (Old Iranian) form. 106 The 
prophet Zardust (the Pahlavi form of the Avestan name Zarathustra, the 
founding figure and namesake of the Zoroastrian religion), requested of 
his supreme deity Ohrmazd (Avestan Ahum Mazddh) the gift of immor- 
tality, whereupon the god sent to Zardust a dream-vision. As he slept the 
prophet saw “the root of a tree,” and on this there grew four branches - 
one of gold, one of silver, one of steel and one of mixed iron. After 
Zardust awoke, Ohrmazd revealed to him the meaning of the prophetic 
dream: the four branches represent four successive ages. According to 
the accounts of Vahman Yast 1.2—5 and Denkard 9.8 (both based on 
the Sudkar Nask), the golden branch symbolizes that period in which 
Zardust and Ohrmazd converse with one another, a time when righ- 
teousness flourishes and demonic forces are held in check. The Pahlavi 
sources have woven brief historic details into the description of the sil- 
ver and steel ages, and these differ between the two accounts, though 
in neither text are these periods presented as eras of moral decline. The 
age of mixed iron is one of gathering evil and of religious apostasy — a 
time when honor and wisdom ( Denkard 9.8.5) will take their leave of 
Iran. With the passing of the fourth age, the “millennium of Zardust” 
comes to an end. 

A variant account of the metallic ages follows in chapter two of 
the Vahman Yast (2.14—22). Again Zardust is said to dream of a tree, but 
in this instance, one with seven branches representing the periods of the 
millennium: gold, silver, bronze, copper, tin, steel, and mixed iron. 107 
The nature of the golden age is the same as before; and, fundamentally 
as in chapter one, the Pahlavi document here identifies the reigning 
figures of the silver through steel ages with various historical personages 


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deemed faithful to Zoroastrianism. The final age of mixed iron is again 
a time of advancing darkness, with a lengthy description of its near- 
apocalyptic evils being set out following the dream narrative ( Vahtnan 
Yast 2.23 —63 ) . Among its myriad banes some are particularly reminiscent 
of the ills that Hesiod assigns to his own iron age: deceit and division 
will trump friendship, respect will leave the world, and parents will lose 
affection for their children (2.30). While in Works and Days iron-age 
people will be born with gray hair (line 18 1) and grow old quickly (line 
185), in the Iranian account people are born smaller and weaker (2.32). 
Hesiod declares that there will be no appreciation for the one who keeps 
an oath or for the just ( dikaios [Skoaos]) or the good; instead, people 
will praise the evil-doer and the man of hubris (lines 190—92), and an 
evil man will make false claims against a more noble man and swear that 
those claims are true (lines 193-4). The Vahman Yast (2.39) states that 
justice will not be rightly determined and people will believe the words 
of the ignoble and maligners who swear oaths falsely. 

In the account of the Vahman Yast human history continues beyond 
the last of the metallic ages, and hence beyond the millennium of 
Zardust. Afterward, in the millennium of one called Usedar (the first of 
three prophetic figures, the sosyants), religious order is restored ( Vahtnan 
Yast 3 . 1— 51) . Next follows the millennium of Usedarmah (the second of 
the sosyants), in which humans are noted as making great strides in med- 
ical care, but evil again asserts itself with the release of the imprisoned 
evil dragon Az Dahak. The dragon will, however, be destroyed when 
Ohrmazd causes the ancient dragon-slayer Karsasp to be awakened; that 
millennium comes to an end ( Vahman Yast 3 . 52— 61) . The final prophetic 
figure, known only generically as Sosyant, then appears and ushers in 
a renewed purity, and cosmic history is brought to fulfillment ( Vahman 
Yast 3. 62). 108 

India In Book Three of the Mahdbhdrata, that tome among ancient 
epics, the sons ofPandu wander the wilderness spaces of northern India 
in their twelve-year exile. Bhima, second eldest of the Pandavas, one 
day encounters Hanuman — the ape-lord better known from that second 
Sanskrit epic, the Rdmdyana — who instructs Bhima in the four yugas — 
ages — of the world (3 .148). Each yuga bears the name of a dice-throw; 
while there is no metallic symbolism, each age is marked by the god 
Visnu (Krsna) taking on a color particular to that yuga. The first age 
is that of the ‘winning throw’, the krtayuga, an idyllic era in which 
dharma 109 holds sway; it knows no death, it knows neither toil nor 
pain nor illness. The earth puts forth its fruits without cultivation. In 

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this age the four social elements of Indo-Aryan society - the brahmana, 
ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra classes - are well defined and perform each 
their appropriate function. Visnu’s color in the krtayuga is white - the 
color of the brahmana (priestly) class. 

In the second age, that of the tretdyuga, sacrifice is introduced. 
Though dharma is reduced by one-fourth, mankind is nonetheless 
devoted to the observance of law and rites. In the tretdyuga, Visnu’s 
color becomes red - the color of the ksatriya (warrior) class. 

The dvdparayuga, the third age, sees dharma reduced by half. Ritual 
proliferates as the knowledge of the Vedas becomes uneven and variable 
among humankind. There is a falling away from truth and a consequent 
suffering from disease and disaster. Visnu’s color becomes yellow - the 
color of the vaisya (worker) class. 

The fourth and final age, the kaliyuga, is one that sees only one- 
quarter of dharma remaining. Ritual and sacrifice are forsaken; disease 
and disaster multiply; famine and sloth abound; humanity and the world 
spiral into decline. It is an age of discord and darkness; Visnu’s color is 
black - the color of the sudra (slave) class. 

Later in Book Three of the Mahabhdrata (3 .186), Yudhisthira, king 
among the Pandavas, meets the ancient seer Markandeya and questions 
him concerning the nature of the recurring cosmic cycles of destruction 
and creation. The hermit then tells Yudhisthira of the four ages, how 
they grow progressively shorter, and how, after the completion of the 
last, the cycle of four begins anew — and so on and on. Markandeya’s 
initial summary description of the four ages is succinct, much more 
so than Hanuman’s earlier account of the same. Up to this point, 
Markandeya’s account approximates in scope and details the descrip- 
tion of the four yugas found in the ancient brahmin legal text called the 
Manavadharmasdstra, or Laws ofManu, 1 .68—74 (to which we shall return 
below; note that certain of the characteristics of each age specified in 
the ape-lord Hanuman’s disquisition are reflected just a few lines later 
at Laws ofManu 1.79—86). Then, however, for more than 50 stanzas, 
Markandeya waxes eloquent about what things will occur as the last of 
the four ages, the kaliyuga, comes to an end. 

Just a bit further along in the epic text (Mahabhdrata 3.188), 
Yudhisthira again questions the sage about the discordant kaliyuga ; and, 
again, Markandeya responds with a litany of symptoms and woes that 
will mark the final age — a list extending over more than 65 stanzas: the 
brahmana, ksatriya, and vaisya classes will intermingle in marriage and 
become like the sudra; the classes will invert their proper orders; fathers 
and sons will turn against one another; brahmins will turn away from 

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their vows and rites; agriculturalists will abandon sensible practices; jus- 
tice will be perverted; the warriors will victimize the defenseless; kings 
will claim for themselves the property of others; people will turn gray at 
sixteen years — the maximum lifespan — having produced children when 
only a child’s age themselves . 110 The similarity of these deficiencies to 
the ills of the final age of both the Iranian and Hesiodic traditions is 
self-evident, as is the extensive attention that is paid to the final age in 
each case. 

Egypt and Mesopotamia While Mesopotamia preserves traditions of 
human lifespan growing progressively shorter as time passes - West 111 
cites the example of the Sumerian king list — there is nothing structurally 
comparable to the motif of four world ages found in Hesiod’s Works and 
Days, the Book of Daniel, Iranian religious texts, and Indie epic and 
law. Egypt is equally silent . 112 The cultural and geographic distribution 
of the motif must itself be of some significance, leading us to return to 
a consideration of the myth of ages once more below. 

Hesiod: Keeper of the Gate 

The ancient Greeks were an Indo-European people, descended ulti- 
mately from those yet more ancient people that scholars dub the Proto- 
Indo-Europeans. Linguistically and culturally the Greeks thus share a 
common heritage with the other Indo-European populations of Europe 
and Asia — Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Anatolian, Indo- 
Iranian, Armenian, and so on. Comparative crosscultural investigation 
of shared mythic traditions attested among the historical Indo-European 
peoples allows the reconstructive identification of ancestral mythic ele- 
ments of the parent Indo-European culture. 

Attributing the epithet “keeper of the gate” to Hesiod is here 
intended to make reference to his preservation of Indo-European mythic 
motifs; but some might consider the attribution to be almost tongue- 
in-cheek, for, they might suggest, there seems to be precious little 
that the Greeks — even Hesiod in the eighth century BC — have 
preserved of their Indo-European mythic heritage. Georges Dumezil, 
the twentieth-century’s preeminent investigator of comparative Indo- 
European myth, referred to the Greeks as his amants ingrats “ungrate- 
ful lovers .” 113 “Greek mythology,” he wrote, “escapes Indo-European 
categories .” 114 As argued above, the Greeks — Hesiod in this instance — 
fell under the influence of Near Eastern traditions, and this is certainly 

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one reason - perhaps the chief reason - that they may appear to have 
wandered far from the Indo-European mythic fold. Even so, Dumezil’s 
pronouncements are likely unduly pessimistic; as various scholars have 
demonstrated, 115 including Dumezil himself, 116 one can indeed identify 
vestiges of an Indo-European heritage preserved in the structures of 
Greek myth. 

The Five Ages of Mankind, Part 2 

In a wonderfully insightful investigation, Jean-Pierre Vernant (1983a) 
examined Hesiod’s myth of the ages and identified there what is for 
the comparatist an unmistakable expression of Indo-European tripartite 
ideology. 117 Proto-Indo-European society, as recognized independently 
by Dumezil and Emile Benveniste, was characterized by a three-part 
structural division, consisting of elements of sovereignty, war-making, 
and goods-production (pastoralism/agriculturahsm). 118 The concept 
was more fully explored and developed by Dumezil, whose nomen- 
clature for the three elements, or “functions” as he called them, became 
commonplace in the twentieth century: Dumezil spoke of the first, 
second, and third functions, respectively - with a common shorthand 
content-denotation being that of the priestly, warrior, and worker func- 
tions. The first function is characterized by two distinct aspects — to 
wit, those of law and religion. In the case of some early historically 
attested Indo-European cultures, these three functions find expression 
in an actual tripartite structuring of society (i.e., a dividing of soci- 
ety into three classes) — notably among the Indie and Iranian peo- 
ples in Asia and among the Celts in Europe. In the case of other 
Indo-European peoples, however, primitive Indo-European triparti- 
tion survives only as a vestigial ideology (at least during the periods 
from which documentary evidence of those cultures has survived), 
often finding expression in religious and mythic motifs. Conspicu- 
ous among this latter group are the Italic peoples, most especially the 

Vernant observed that by interpolating an additional age — that 
of the heroes (on the interpolation, see West’s remarks above) — into 
the structure of the metallic generations, Hesiod constructs a classic 
Indo-European tripartite structure — though we might say an appar- 
ently “unorthodox” one, to the extent that each expression of the three 
functions is internally dichotomous, displaying a +/— opposition. This 
binary feature is itself, however, quite in keeping with Hesiod, who 
clearly displays a penchant for dichotomies and ambivalence. 119 

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Hesiod’s use of diametric contrastiveness occurs at many levels. We 
have already noted, for instance, his opposition of the good Eris and the 
bad Eris, of the good Zelos and the bad Zelos; in Works and Days 317- 
19, the poet presents Aidos (od 5 oos, ‘respect, shame’) as similarly, though 
not identically, ambivalent: she “both greatly harms and greatly prospers 
men.” 120 We find such contrastiveness at the phrasal level as well: thus, 
in the Theogony (line 585), Hesiod denotes Pandora with the alliterative, 
oxymoronic phrase kalon kakon (kcxAov kockov), the ‘beautiful bane’ — 
a denotation that itself contrasts with the name that the poet assigns 
her in Works and Days (lines 80—81), Pandora (llav 5 obpr|) ‘All-giving’ — 
and, continuing the spiral of contrasts, that name, no less, connotes 
dichotomy; in Clay’s words, “To be sure, that name is as ambiguous 
as she is: promising all, but in reality all-consuming.” 121 The poet’s 
playful contrastiveness is heightened when one considers that Pandora - 
the appellation of Hesiod’s ‘beautiful bane’, she who was responsible 
for bringing evil upon mankind — was otherwise the name or epithet 
of a beneficent chthonic goddess endowing mortals with all of earth’s 
delightful gifts. 122 Hesiod’s Pandora-dichotomies are part and parcel of 
the distinction he develops between “appearance” and “reality” and his 
ambivalent depiction of womankind. Clay puts it this way: 

The wondrous exterior of this ancestress, or better, prototype 
of female women/wives is counterbalanced by the simile 
of the bees and the drones which depicts her inner nature, 
invisible to the naked eye. . . . The Woman is a semblance of a 
semblance, whose fair exterior stands in complete opposition 
to the bitter facts of her true nature. 

The dilemma that follows is exclusively a human 
dilemma and Zeus’s coup de grace. The trap so carefully laid 
now clangs shut: if a man manages to escape marriage, he 
will indeed have enough to eat, but he will have no one to 
look after him in his old age and, since he remains childless, 
distant relatives will divide his inheritance. If, however, he 
should marry and have the luck to find a good wife, even 
so misery will continually battle with good; but should he 
chance upon a bad one, then boundless and unremitting 
misery will fill his days (603— 12). 123 

Hesiod’s oppositional method comes to the fore in his catalog of fantas- 
tic hybrid creatures — the monsters ( Theogony 270—336). For example, 
as Clay points out, in Hesiod’s description of the Graeae (the three 


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‘old-women’ daughters of Phorcys and Ceto; lines 270-73) the poet 
ignores their most salient feature - the sharing of a single eye and tooth 
that they pass back and forth between them - “but emphasizes rather 
their paradoxical combination of youth and age”; moreover, “the Gor- 
gons encompass yet another fundamental dichotomy; for while two 
of the sisters are immortal, Medusa is singled out as mortal” 124 (lines 
274-8). These hybrid creatures as a group contrast with Hesiod’s other 
hybrids - those that render the former harmless - the heroes; in setting 
the two against one another, Clay observes, “Hesiod calls attention to 
the different kinds of pl^is [tnixis, ‘mingling’], the one positive and con- 
trolled, the other destructive and disordered.” 125 Indeed, she further 
advocates (emphasis is mine), “In a sense, the catalogue of monsters 
represents an anti-cosmos that explodes the whole conception of the 
Theogony .” 126 Other scholars have argued that +/— oppositions are to 
be found within certain empirically identified functional categories in 
Hesiod’s myths (a la Levi-Strauss) . 127 The list of dichotomies utilized by 
Hesiod could undoubtedly be greatly extended, but this is sufficient to 
give the reader an idea. 

Now returning to Vernant — and summarizing his analysis very 
succinctly - the first two ages, those of the golden and silver races, 
are an expression of the Indo-European first function, the realm of 
sovereignty, having no affiliation with war (second function) and none 
with agrarian labor (third function). Gold, the element of the initial age, 
is a symbol of sovereignty; and upon passing from this life, the members 
of that golden race receive a geras basileion (yspas (3acnAf|iov), literally 
a ‘kingly privilege’: becoming daimones (Sodpovss), ‘divine spirits’ who 
dwell on the earth ( epikhthonioi [ETnybovioi]), they serve as guardians of 
humankind (protecting justice, according to most manuscripts 128 ) and 
bestowers of wealth (lines 121—6). Hesiod linguistically links the golden 
age beings with the just rulers of his own day, using the same or similar 
language to describe both (they are both “like gods,” cf. Works and Days 
112 and Theogony 91; they both enjoy earth’s bounty, cf. Works and Days 
114-20 and 225-37). 

The silver age is likewise symbolized by a precious metal, though 
one inferior to gold; and, indeed, Hesiod explicitly states that the beings 
of this race are inferior to those of the golden age — the silver age is, 
in Vernant’s words, “its exact counterpart and opposite.” 129 After their 
long childhood, the people of the silver age live only briefly as adults, 
because of the hubris that they display toward one another and toward the 
gods — they are impious, refusing to give the gods their rightful sacrifices. 
Again, Hesiod’s language links the silver-age beings to the kings of his 

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own day — to the unjust rulers who pervert dike among humankind and 
give no thought to revering the gods (cf. Works and Days 134-7 and 
249-51). Zeus destroys the silver race. But even so, becoming “blessed 
spirits” (but not the daitnones that their predecessors became) that have an 
existence beneath the earth (hupokhthonioi [uiroyGovioi]), they receive 
honor. Vernant points out that their subterranean existence brings them 
into the sphere of the Titans, also characterized by hubris, and he argues 
that Hesiod thus constructs a parallelism between the golden and silver 
races of the Works and Days and, respectively, the Olympians (who 
“represent the rule of order”) and Titans (who “embody the rule of 
disorder and hubris” 130 ) of the Theogony. In the case of the first two 
of Hesiod’s metallic races, Vernant argues, the “dominant value is dike, 
hubris is secondary”; 131 and for dike the golden race is valued positive, 
the silver negative: the two races contrast antithetically. 

Hesiod’s bronze age is militaristic; concerning this age the poet 
offers no word about justice, nothing about religious observance: “We 
have moved from the juridical and religious plane to that of manifes- 
tations of brute force . . . , physical energy . . . , and the terror which 
the warrior inspires.” 132 The men of bronze have nothing to do with 
agriculture as well - Hesiod tells us that they eat no bread. 

. . . Ares’ woeful works 145 

They used to love, and deeds of hubris too . . . 

A mighty force was theirs, and arms invincible 148 

From out their shoulders grew, such steely limbs 

They live by the sword and die by the sword; and seized by death they 
go nameless into the cold darkness of Hades’ realm. Theirs is the hubris 
of the warrior, which “consists in wishing to recognize nothing but the 
lance, and devoting oneself entirely to it.” 133 

As the silver race is defined by the golden, so the age of heroes 
is defined by the bronze age, “as its counterpart in the same sphere of 
action.” 134 The heroes are warriors no less than the bronze men, but 
Hesiod describes them as dikaioteron kai areion (SixaiOTEpov Kal apsiov) 
‘more just (the comparative form of the adjective derived from dike) 
and nobler’ (Works and Days 158) — Vernant summarizes: “the warrior 
who is just, and. . . willing to submit to the superior order of dike”; 
“the warrior who is the champion of order.” 135 Though he makes no 
mention of it, the contrast that Vernant here perceives between the 


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warriors of the bronze age and those of the heroic age - between the 
hubris- type warrior of brute and raging force and the noble warrior 
subject to dike - looks to be a reflection of a widely occurring Indo- 
European structure. Dumezil identified two distinct warrior-types that 
contrastively recur in early Indo-European traditions: on the one hand 
there is the brutish warrior — savage and untamed, often using his arms 
and hands as weapons (such as Indie Bhima, Greek Heracles, Scandi- 
navian Starkadr); on the other, the warrior who is intelligent, civilized, 
noble (such as Indie Aijuna, Greek Achilles, Scandinavian Sigurdr ). 136 In 
Hesiod’s presentation of the second duo of races - bronze and heroic - 
Vernant observes, his principal concern is “with the manifestation of 
the physical force and violence linked with hubris ”: 137 the two groups, 
again, contrast antithetically - the heroes display a positive aspect within 
this sphere of characterization, the bronze warriors a negative. 

Hesiod’s own iron age — before which he wishes he had died, or 
else been born after - is itself dichotomous. Hesiod lives in an ambiguous 
age that knows both a positive and negative era, both dike and hubris, 
both good and ill — but in time ill will prevail; and all of these ills, 
Vernant observes, have as their source the kalon kakon (the ‘beautiful 
bane’), the woman with whom Zeus punished man for Prometheus’ 
theft of fire — whose tale Hesiod tells and immediately segues to his 
logos of the five ages. In Works and Days the poet assigns her a name - 
Pandora - a name that, as we have seen, is otherwise given to a goddess 
of earth; more than that, the two — the gods’ gift-woman and the earth- 
goddess — are equated — at times in an explicit way, at other times more 
indirectly. The gift-woman’s central affiliation with the fertility of earth 
and of humankind is crucial for a right understanding of the iron age: 

There is no longer that spontaneous abundance which, dur- 
ing the age of gold, made living creatures and their sustenance 
spring up from the soil simply as a result of the rule of justice 
and nothing else. Now it is man who entrusts new life to 
the woman’s womb, just as it is the farmer who works the 
land and makes the cereals grow in it . 138 

Hesiod depicts his iron age using concepts fundamental to the domain 
of the Indo-European third function — the domain of the agriculturalist, 
the domain of fertility. 

As Hesiod has made plain to Perses, iron-age man must determine 
to follow the good Eris, or else the bad — that one which urges the farmer 
on to hard work and its fruits, or that one which keeps him from honest 


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labor and nourishes human strife. The former is the path to dike for the 
farmer, the latter that of hubris. The diametric opposition within this age 
is that between the period in which dike can (but will not universally) 
be attained in the midst of labor and sorrow (positive) and the future 
era of degeneration in which lutbris alone will hold sway (negative) : 

This picture of the farmer misled by lutbris, which is pre- 
sented in the age of iron in its decline, is essentially that of 
a revolt against order; an upside-down world where every 
hierarchy, rule, and value is inverted. The contrast with the 
image of the farmer who is subject to dike, at the beginning 
of the age of iron, is complete . 139 

Hesiod skillfully preserves in his Works and Days — a work heav- 
ily influenced by Near Eastern tradition — an archaic Indo-European 
tripartite ideology, associating his several ages with the elements of 
sovereignty, war-making, and goods-production. He is able to do so - 
to create a parallel structure in triplicate out of five generations - by inte- 
grating dichotomous oppositions into the scheme of the ages - opposi- 
tions that reverberate with his fundamental contrast of dike and hubris , I4 ° 
Questions immediately arise. Whence comes this tripartition? 
That is to say, how and in what sense is Hesiod aware of it? What 
is the poet’s source and inspiration for the use of the ancestral tripartite 
ideology in his myth of the ages? Is it an integral feature of this tradition, 
or one that Hesiod — or some Hesiodic predecessor — has imposed upon 
the tradition de novo ? 

An Indo-European Tradition 

We have seen that West, among others, identifies Hesiod’s metallic-races 
logos as one borne to Greece out of the east. Yet might this tale of the 
ages itself be of Indo-European origin? When considered collectively, 
the individual strands of evidence point unmistakably, I will argue, in the 
direction of an Indo-European provenance. The first and most funda- 
mental consideration is that of the geographic and cultural distribution 
of the tradition outside of Greece. We have met with this tale of Earth’s 
ages in three literary venues: in the Biblical Book of Daniel; in Iranian 
(Zoroastrian) religious documents; and in Indie epic and law — hardly 
the geographic distribution typical of the “Near Eastern” elements that 
surface in Hesiod’s poems. 

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The Book of Daniel and Persian Influence 

Biblical scholars seem bedeviled by the date and compositional history 
of the Book of Daniel. The Biblical story is set in the reign of the 
Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar II, during that period of Jewish 
history called the Babylonian Exile (c. 586-535 BC) - a time when 
significant elements of Jerusalem’s population had been deported and 
resettled in Mesopotamia following Nebuchadnezzar’s subjugation of 
Judah and its capital. 141 Currently, Biblical scholars typically view the 
Book of Daniel, in the form in which we know it, as a product of the 
Hellenistic era — an apocalyptic work written during a period ofjewish 
persecution at the hands of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes in the 
second century BC. Regardless of when and under what circumstances 
Daniel acquired its present form, clearly there must lie behind that form 
traditions older than the Hellenistic period. 

Nabonidus Compare, in this regard, a Jewish tradition concerning 
the Babylonian king Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon prior to its 
capitulation to Cyrus and his Persians in 539 BC. One of the Qumran 
documents (the Dead Sea Scrolls) preserves the record of an encounter 
between Nabonidus and a Jewish diviner and of how this holy man 
counseled the king as he suffered from some affliction — an episode that 
is in several respects reminiscent of the Biblical stories of Nebuchad- 
nezzar and Daniel. 142 Nabonidus — who is otherwise known as having 
a particular penchant for dream interpretation 143 (he states that he was 
called to kingship in a dream sent by Sin, the Moon-god 144 ) and con- 
frontations with Babylonian priests — ruled Babylonia from the Arabian 
town of Tema, more than 600 miles away from his capital, for ten years 
of his seventeen-year reign, leaving his son, Belshazzar, in Babylon to 
manage affairs of state in his absence. 145 It is in Tema that Nabonidus 
fell ill, according to the Qumran record, and in his affliction prayed to 
the God of the Jews. Nabonidus busied himself with various towns in 
the region of Tema; 146 that these same towns are known as sites ofjew- 
ish settlement from later Islamic documents might be taken to suggest 
a Jewish presence in these places in Nabonidus’ own day. 147 A Jewish 
presence in Babylon in Nabonidus’ day is, of course, beyond question. 

Cyrus When the Persian army entered Babylon in mid-October 
539 BC, the city capitulated quickly and seemingly with little 
opposition. 148 Arriving two weeks later, Cyrus is claimed to have been 
welcomed as a liberator of this cosmopolitan city. 149 Babylon, like all 


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of Babylonia, was populated by ethnically diverse peoples: documents, 
for example, from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar refer to the presence at 
his court of “Elamites, Persians, Cilicians, Jews, various emigrants from 
Asia Minor (‘Ionians’), ‘fugitives from Media’, and others.” 150 The rapid 
surrender of Babylon to Cyrus can most likely be attributed to the pres- 
ence of pro-Persian elements already present within the city, including 
Jewish contingents. 151 By 538, Cyrus had issued a decree permitting the 
Jewish exiles to return to Palestine and restore the Jerusalem temple. 
The decree was reconfirmed in 520 by Darius I, who had followed 
Cyrus’ own successor (his son Cambyses) on the throne of Persia. 152 
The prophet Isaiah can refer to the Persian Cyrus as the “anointed” 
of the Lord (Isaiah 45:1), called to be Yahweh’s shepherd, to fulfill His 
purposes (Isaiah 44:28). 

The Aramaic Language A salient feature that sets the Book of Daniel 
apart from other Biblical works is its particular linguistic complexity. 
While the language of the Old Testament is of course predominantly 
Hebrew, a large subset of Daniel’s twelve chapters - 2:4b to 7:28 - is 
written, instead, in the Semitic language Aramaic. Aside from a couple 
of minor occurrences, Aramaic is otherwise used in the Bible only for 
portions of the Book of Ezra, 4:8 to 6:18 and 7:12-26: passages record- 
ing communiques with the Persian court and a decree issued by the 
Persian monarch Cyrus, in which he gives approval for the rebuilding 
of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Ancient Aramaic survives in several 
distinct varieties. 153 That one found in Daniel is a form of Imperial or 
Official Aramaic (in use c. 600—200 BC), a lingua franca used in the 
Neo-Babylonian Empire and, subsequently, by the Persians. The Ara- 
maic language of Daniel contains Akkadian and, more especially, Per- 
sian loanwords. The latter group of borrowings includes not only terms 
denoting Persian officials and vocabulary from the realm of government, 
but less specialized lexemes as well. For example, in Daniel 2:5, a verse 
in which Nebuchadnezzar threatens his Chaldean priests with dismem- 
berment if they cannot reveal to him his dream and its interpretation, 
the words for ‘make known’ and ‘limb’ are Persian loans. 154 

Linguistic and sociopolitical considerations, taken together with 
the evidence provided by the Qumran tradition of Nabonidus, point 
to the Aramaic portions of Daniel having taken shape in Mesopotamia 
(as opposed to Palestine) during a period of Persian influence. Com- 
position of the Aramaic text could itself be plausibly assigned to the 
sixth or fifth century BC, with subsequent updating of some Aramaic 
vocabulary by copyists. 155 In a careful and balanced study of Daniel 


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chapter two - that chapter containing the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s 
dream of the colossal metallic statue - Davies argues that the earliest 
form of the narrative is of sixth-century date and that the interpreta- 
tion then assigned to the four metallic components of the statue was 
that each represented one of the last four Neo-Babylonian monarchs: 
Nebuchadnezzar, Amel-Marduk, Neriglissar, and Nabonidus — the last 
named being the feet of clay whose collapse brought an end to the 
Neo-Babylonian empire . 156 

Persian Influence Biblical scholars have long acknowledged that the 
Persians exerted an influence on (Post) -Exilic Judaism, if they have dis- 
agreed concerning the extent and specific forms of such influence . 157 
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream vision - the gigantic statue of gold, silver, 
bronze, and iron mixed with clay — is practically unique among Biblical 
symbols; to identify anything roughly comparable one must “adduce 
the bizarre symbols of Zechariah, influenced, as is commonly recog- 
nized, by the Babylonian culture and art .” 158 Daniel’s colossus appears, 
prima facie, to be a probable instance of Persian influence, in light of the 
setting described above and given the occurrence of the similar Zoroas- 
trian tradition. Indeed, some Biblical scholars have argued in favor of 
this position, others against it , 159 but the more typical (“safer”) view 
seems to be that the motif of metallic ages was just something in the 
air that infected the Greeks, the Jews, and the Persians alike . 160 This is 
clearly not a satisfying solution; but, more than that, there is in fact an 
additional piece of evidence, one that appears heretofore to have been 
overlooked, that draws Daniel’s account more securely into the realm 
of Iranian cultural influence, as we shall see. 

Indo-Iranian Traditions and Hesiod 

If the presence of the metallic world-ages motif in Daniel can be 
attributed to Persian (or, perhaps more carefully, Iranian) influence — 
a reasonable and prima facie compelling hypothesis — then, within a 
comparative Indo-European framework, the cultural and geographic 
distribution of the tradition takes on considerable significance, being 
attested among the Greeks, Iranians, and Indo-Aryans. Indie and Ira- 
nian languages belong to a single Indo-European linguistic subfamily, 
Indo-Iranian. Together with Greek and Armenian, Indo-Iranian forms 
a well-recognized cluster within the Indo-European language family, 
sharing several innovative linguistic features . 161 Such clustering reveals a 
period of linguistic and cultural commonality or intercourse in an early 


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Indo-European community whose descendants would become the his- 
torically attested Greek, Indo-Iranian and Armenian peoples. Little has 
survived in the way of archaic Armenian cultural usages, but the co- 
occurrence of the world-ages motif in Greek and Indo-Iranian lore may 
reveal that the origin of the tradition lies in the period of ancestral cul- 
tural commonality. Significant in this regard is the conspicuous presence 
in Hesiod of other features shared with Indo-Iranian tradition. 

Thirty-five lines beyond the hawk-and-nightingale fable in Works 
and Days, Hesiod turns his attention to the kings and warns them of 
the consequences of “crooked judgments” — divine retribution (lines 

For thrice ten thousand on the earth that nurtures all 
Are Zeus’s deathless watchers of our mortal humankind; 

And they keep watch on judgments and on wicked works, 
Enwrapped in mist and roaming over all the earth. 255 

Since at least the mid-nineteenth-century work of Rudolph Roth, 162 
scholars have recognized the fundamental sameness of Zeus’s mortal- 
watchers, on then one hand, and the spies dispatched by Iranian Mithra 
and by Indie Mitra and, especially, Varuna, on the other. In the Avesta, 
Mithra is said to have ten thousand spies (Yast 10.24, 27, 60, 82, 141), 
stationed at every watch post, spying out those who are untrue to 
covenant, those who would harm the just (Yast 10.44-6). The Vedas 
tell how Varuna similarly deploys thousand-eyed spies who scour the 
earth ( Atharva Veda 4.16.4), spies whom he sends out to watch “well- 
fashioned” heaven and earth (Rig Veda 7.87.3); they roam about with 
eyes unblinking (Rig Veda 10. 10.8). Mitra and Varuna send their spies 
into fields and homes — to all places — to watch without ceasing (Rig 
Veda 7.61.3). 

The Greek poet returns to this imagery, in a slightly varied form, 
a few lines further along. After again warning the kings — given to “gift- 
gobbling” as they are - to judge rightly (lines 263-4), and punctuating 
the admonition with a proverbial couplet — the kind so familiar from 
the Near East — to drive home his point, 

The man who prepares evil for another prepares evil for 

himself, 265 

And an evil plan is the greatest evil to the one who plans it, 

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Hesiod declares that the eye of Zeus, all-seeing and all-knowing, also 
watches how justice is administered in the city (lines 267-9). The Indo- 
Iranian match is again exact. Returning to the Mithra Yast ( Yast 10), 
we find frequent reference to Iranian Mithras ten thousand eyes and 
thousand ears (Yast 10.7, 82, 91, 141) and to all-knowing, all-seeing 
Mithras thousandfold perception (Yast 10.35, 82, 107). In Yast 10.24, 
60, 69, 82, 141, and 143, in conjunction with references to his ten 
thousand spies, Mithra is said to be all-knowing - as also in 10.27, 
where he is depicted as punishing the wayward country — and in 10.46, 
where all-knowing Mithra himself is said to be a spy. Likewise in India, 
Varuna is said to behold all things (Atharva Veda 4.16.5, following the 
reference to his spies) and to be all-knowing. 163 As West rightly observes, 
“We are dealing here with a piece of Indo-European heritage.” 164 

Diametric opposition is a fundamental and well-known character- 
istic of Zarathustra’s Iranian religion. Writing more than 800 years after 
Hesiod, the Greek savant Plutarch explicates his view of Persian dualism: 
the Magus Zoroaster, he writes, recognized two gods, Oromazes and 
Areimanius, the first likened to light, the second — in contrast — likened 
to darkness and ignorance - two gods perpetually at war with one 
another. The opposition extends further: some plants are affiliated with 
the one god, some with the other; again, certain animals belong to the 
good Oromazes - such as dogs, birds, and hedgehogs - and others to the 
evil Areimanius — the single example provided being that of the water 
rat (Isis and Osiris 46-7). 

Plutarch’s Oromazes is Ahura Mazdah (the Pahlavi Ohrmazd that 
we encountered above), the Iranian deity that the reformer Zarathustra 
acknowledged as supreme god; Areimanius is Angra Mainyu, locus of 
the power of darkness. The two encapsulate the diametrically contrastive 
notions of asa ‘order, truth’ and drug ‘lie’. At times the opposition is 
formulated as a contrast between Spanta Mainyu (‘beneficent spirit’) 
and Angra Mainyu, who are then described as twins — the former having 
chosen asa, the other drug. Among humankind, one who follows asa is 
an asavan\ one who does not is a dragvant . 165 

The roots of Zoroastrian dualism clearly lie in an earlier period. 
With the Persian contrast of asa and drug, compare, for example, the 
Vedic distinction (with cognate terms 166 ) of rta ‘order, truth’ versus druh 
‘harm; demonic spirit’. The Sanskrit term rta is eventually superceded 
by dharma; in the Laws of Manu 1 .26, Brahma, in creating the universe, 
is said to have distinguished dharma from (its opposite) adharma and to 
have imposed on the creatures he brought forth oppositional pairs, such 
as happiness and unhappiness. 

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Cosmology and Cosmogony 

The cosmological doctrine of cyclically recurring, progressively dimin- 
ishing ages, each uniquely affiliated with a social caste, is complemented 
in Vedic lore by a well-known cosmogonic tradition. Rig Veda 10.90 (the 
Purusa Siikta) records it. In the beginning there was a great cosmic giant, 
Purusa. The gods sacrificed this giant and with their victim’s dismem- 
bered body fashioned the cosmos. Conspicuous attention is given to the 
creation of the varnas (classes) of human society: from the giant’s mouth 
they formed the brdhmana class (priests), from his arms the ksatriyas (war- 
riors), and from his legs the vaisya class (workers); his feet gave rise to 
the sudra, the non-Indo-Aryan slave caste. 

The tradition is similarly rehearsed as a part of the creation dis- 
course in the Laws of Mann (1.31). It is in this same discourse - subse- 
quent to and dependent upon the cosmogonic Purusa-dismemberment 
tradition - that the account of cyclic cosmic ages, the four yugas, each 
affiliated with a particular varna, appears (1.68-74, 79—86). And again, 
immediately following the latter exposition of the yugas (1.79—86), the 
discourse turns back to the four classes, their creation out of the dis- 
membria of Purusa and their consequent natural functions (1.87-93). 

And so it is in the Mahdbhdrata. Sandwiched between his two 
descriptions of the fourth age, the kaliyuga ( Mahdbhdrata 3.187), the 
Brahmin Markandeya tells Yudhisthira of how he had roamed a devas- 
tated, flooded earth at the culmination of a kaliyuga and encountered a 
god who identified himself as Narayana (Visnu) — creator and destroyer. 
In teaching the seer of his creative acts and his cosmic being, the god 
declares that the brdhmanas are his mouth and the ksatriyas his arms, that 
the vaisyas are at his thighs and the sudras at his feet. The god tells of how 
he creates himself when dharma begins to wane and of the four charac- 
teristic colors he takes on in the four successive yugas. When the time 
comes that dharma has diminished by three-fourths, it is Narayana him- 
self who destroys the cosmos. Cosmology and cosmogony are interlaced. 

While the Vedic tradition of the sacrificed primeval giant has 
undergone culture-specific reworking to the extent that it has incorpo- 
rated the indigenous (non-Indo-Aryan) sudra class, this creation account 
is widely acknowledged to be an Indo-European inheritance. Homol- 
ogous traditions are broadly attested among Indo-European peoples - 
Irish, Slavic, Germanic, and others. 167 Especially close is the Norse cos- 
mogony, preserved in the Eddie poem the Grimnismdl (40—41) and by 
Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda, telling how the god Odin and his 
brothers dismembered the body of the primeval giant Ymir and from 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

his body parts created the cosmos. An Old Russian version of the cos- 
mogony survives in the poem entitled Stic ogolubinoj knig (‘Poem on the 
Dove King’) and parallels the Vedic text in detailing the creation of the 
classes of society - in this instance the three canonical Indo-European 
elements only, that is, those of sovereignty, physical might, and goods 
production. In these and still other Indo-European traditions treating 
the genesis of human society, the priestly (sovereign) element arises 
from the head of the dismembered victim, the warrior from the arms 
and upper body (theirs is strength and heart), and the goods-producing 
stratum from the lower body. 168 

Especially relevant for our concerns are Iranian vestiges and per- 
mutations of this Indo-European cosmogony. For example, the Pahlavi 
Skend GumdnTg Vizdr (1.20-24), 169 in the context of a creation account, 
compares body parts to the social classes of Iranian society, without 
reference to the sacrificed primeval giant. The head is likened to the 
priests, hands to the warriors, the belly to agriculturalists - that is, liter- 
ally, to the ‘pastoralist - herdsman’ class 170 - and the feet to the huiti class, 
a fourth element (a so-called artisan group 171 ) appended to the three 
Indo-European classes, here structurally and functionally matching the 
position of the sudra in the Indie cosmogony of Purusa. 172 Interestingly, 
the comparison is made in conjunction with the symbol of a great 
tree, representing the religion created by Ohrmazd; on the tree are four 
twigs, each one symbolizing one of the four social classes. 173 Compare 
the cosmology of Zardust’s dream of a root of a tree with four branches — 
gold, silver, steel, and mixed iron — representing four successive ages. 
Again, cosmology and cosmogony intertwine. 

Purusa, the Indo-European cosmic giant of Rig Veda 10.90, and 
homologous Indo-European traditions lead us back to the colossus of 
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel chapter two. The superficial similar- 
ity between the Biblical dream image and Indo-Iranian cosmology cum 
cosmogony is obvious. Given the proposed Iranian origin of the Biblical 
tradition, it would be but a small step to take to posit that the gigan- 
tic statue whose constituent metallic body parts represent successive 
political ages has its origin, in effect, in a mapping of the Indo-Iranian 
cosmology of world ages onto the Indo-Iranian (and Indo-European) 
cosmogony of the primeval giant (and indeed the Pahlavi text cited 
above comes very close to this). The subtlety of this fusion and its 
fidelity to the individual traditions involved is only reasonably contex- 
tualized within an “Iranian setting” (defined either more broadly or 
more narrowly) and gives the decidedly affirmative nod to the Biblical 
tradition having taken shape under Iranian influence. 


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TABLE 3.1. Comparison of Indo-Iranian Traditions: Cosmogonic and Cosmologk 







Cosmology and 

Social Classes 

Body parts 
of colossus 





parts of 

Affiliated with 
yugas and 
body parts 

























Clay/iron Mixed 



Slaves/ artisans 

The similarities and connections are summarized in Table 3.1. In 
the rightmost column, the Indo-Aryan and Iranian social classes listed 
are those associated with the corresponding world ages ( yugas ) attested in 
Indie tradition and the corresponding body parts attested in both Indie 
and Iranian tradition. Notice that in the Biblical tradition, the Indo- 
Iranian stratum of the goods-producers has been effectively bifurcated 
by assigning “belly and thighs” and “legs” — both of which are body areas 
affiliated with the Indo-European goods-producing class — to separate 
eras, bronze and iron respectively. The Semitic prophetic adaptation 
is one in which the original Indo-European social symbolism has no 
relevance. While this lower body (i.e., goods-producing) division is rem- 
iniscent of the dichotomous opposition incorporated within Hesiod’s 
iron age (age of goods-producers), the innovative bifurcation of Daniel 
is seemingly required simply to fill out the interpretative structure of 
the Biblical prophecy of successive political powers. 

Conversely, unlike the Indie and (at least some) Iranian traditions, 
the Jewish prophecy makes only a partial distinction between the stra- 
tum of the feet and that of the legs: in Daniel’s interpretation of the 
dream, the feet of iron mixed with clay provide additional interpreta- 
tive information regarding the kingdom of iron (it will be divided); in 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

Indo-Iranian traditions, the feet symbolize a distinct fourth social class 
added to the Indo-European tripartite structure. This variation might 
be taken to suggest that Jews in Babylon adapted an Iranian (Median?) 
tradition that antedates the incorporation of a fourth class into Indie and 
Iranian cosmogony and cosmology. More likely, given the occurrence 
of a distinct “mixed-iron” stratum in the Pahlavi cosmologies, Daniel’s 
departure from Iranian tradition again reflects the freedom of prophetic 

Hesiod’s Myth of the “Ages”: 
Indo-European Perspectives 
and Adaptation 

The evidence clearly leads us in this direction: the tradition of metallic 
ages underlying Nebuchadnezzar’s dream vision as preserved in Daniel 
chapter two is of Iranian origin. That vision and its interpretation draw 
upon both a cosmology that is common Indo-Iranian and a cosmogony 
that is common Indo-European. That same cosmology is preserved no 
less in Hesiod’s myth of the ages. And this shared cosmology is, in 
fact, only one of several motifs common to Hesiod and Indo-Iranian 
tradition. The ancestors of the Greeks and the Indo-Iranians, and of 
the Armenians as well, were once joined as members of a common 
culture, as the linguistic evidence unmistakably reveals. One can most 
reasonably conclude that the co-occurrence in Hesiod and Indo-Iranian 
tradition of an idiosyncratic set of features is the consequence of shared 
inheritance of a common ancestral tradition. 

As one might expect, the Greek form of the inherited myth of 
world ages is not uniquely preserved in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Other 
Greek instantiations of the tradition, attested directly or indirectly, show 
even closer agreement to the Indo-Iranian forms. 174 For example, Ovid’s 
version of the myth in his Metamorphoses (i .89— 162), which the Roman 
poet must have adapted from some Greek version other than that of 
Works and Days , 175 is particularly close to the Indo-Iranian accounts in 
its description of the ages. Aratus ( Phaenomena 96-136), a Greek author 
of the third and fourth centuries, in his account of the goddess Dike 
(‘Justice’) and her flight from the earth to heaven, where she became the 
constellation Virgo (Greek Parthenos), describes the first three ages — 
golden, silver, and bronze (the age in which she fled) 176 — in terms, 
again, highly reminiscent of the Indo-Iranian traditions. 177 


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And just a brief word regarding the metallic scheme for naming 
the ages in Iranian and Greek traditions: it is clear that there is full 
agreement in Persia and Greece in the first, second, and fourth age 
positions: those of gold, silver, and iron. The use of bronze for the 
third metallic age in Hesiod’s logos equally finds a correspondence in 
Iran in Zardust’s dream of the seven branches and an exact positional 
match in the Iranian tradition underlying Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in 
Daniel. The simplest (theoretically most economical) and, therefore, 
best hypothesis (other factors being equal) is that one which posits that 
the use of metals to designate the several ages in the descending order 
gold, silver, bronze, and iron is a feature of the ancestral Greek/Indo- 
Iranian tradition — an inherited feature preserved by Greeks and Iranians 
and not an independent, parallel innovation of each descendent people — 
a more cumbersome and a priori less likely hypothesis. The substitution 
of steel for bronze in Zardust’s four-branch dream is undoubtedly a spe- 
cific Zoroastrian modification of the inherited Indo-Iranian tradition, 
as is the Indie replacement of the metal scheme by that one utiliz- 
ing the colors affiliated with the several castes ( varnas , literally meaning 
‘colors’ 178 ). The common ancestral Indo-European community from 
which the historical Greek and Indo-Iranian (and Armenian) peoples 
descended must have existed as a cultural and linguistic entity the third 
millennium BC, a period that pre-dates the technology of iron produc- 
tion. One could of course argue that the insertion of iron — “mixed 
iron” — into the Greek and Iranian traditions is a secondary develop- 
ment occurring independently in Greece and Iran, but this is neither 
necessary nor desirable. Documentary sources attest to the knowledge 
and use of iron harvested from meteorites as early as the third millen- 
nium BC: 

Texts from Mari, Egypt, and Hittite archives refer to iron as 
black stone from heaven, and reflect elite, votive and ritual 
uses that correspond to archaeological finds in both Greece 
and Levantine contexts, in which iron is limited to ritual and 
burial contexts . 179 

Significant for the present study is the observation that iron-bearing 
meteorites in the vast majority of instances consist of a mixture of iron 
and other materials . 180 Iron from a stone fallen from heaven, typically 
“mixed iron,” would seem a more than appropriate metal for symbol- 
izing the age of cosmic dissolution and catastrophe. 


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Hesiod and Greek Mytei 

Indo-Iranian Loss of Order and Erosion of Social Boundaries 

What became conspicuously clear in the discussion of the preceding 
sections is that the Indo-Iranian myth of world ages is one in which 
each age is linked intrinsically to a social class. The structure is most 
transparent in India, where each age is marked by the color that is 
characteristic of the corresponding class, and the ages follow a hierar- 
chical order, best to worst, that aligns itself with the hierarchy of social 
classes. Dharma progressively decreases by one-quarter as time runs down 
through the class- affiliated ages. It is, in fact, a breakdown in the proper 
relations and ordering of the classes - a loss of dharma - that is critically 
involved in the topsy-turvy unraveling of the cosmos in the final age. 
To recapitulate and elaborate the symptoms of that age from our earlier 
discussion of Mahabharata 3 : society becomes mixed - the three classes 
of Indo-European origin, the brahmana, ksatriya, and vaisya, intermarry; 
the brahmana forsake the Vedas and their sacred duties; judicious agri- 
cultural practices are abandoned; the ksatriyas rape and steal and refuse 
to give protection; the three classes lose their distinctiveness - all blur as 
a single class; any person acts as a brahmin; the Indo-European classes 
are oppressed by the sudras ; the sudras become the interpreters of the 
law, the brahmins their students. At the end, an apocalyptic destruction 
comes. But then, slowly, recovery begins - starting with the brahmana 
class - and a new krtayuga (the Winning Age’) appears: the brahmins 
return to their rites; the ksatriyas protect the earth; the vaisyas look to 
their own tasks; the sudras serve the Indo-European classes. The cos- 
mological process begins anew. 

Prior to Zoroastrian reforms, the Iranian version of the myth of 
ages must surely have been one in which class hierarchy, and its decay 
and consequent disorder, figured prominently. This is strongly suggested 
when three factors are considered collectively. The first (and trivially 
obvious but necessary) consideration is the very survival and essential 
presence of the three ancestral classes (priests, warriors, cultivators) in 
Iran, as in India. 

A second consideration is provided by that evidence adduced 
above for the Iranian survival of the Indo-Iranian (and Indo-European) 
cosmogony of the primeval giant — a cosmogony intimately affiliated 
with the creation of the three classes (a cosmogony even showing accom- 
modation to a fourth class in Iran, just as in India) . As in Indie tradition 
(evidenced by the Laws of Mann) the cosmogony is interlaced with the 
cosmological myth of ages by way of the three social classes, just so, 


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in the Iranian-loan tradition of Daniel, the body-part-specific classes 
of the cosmogony are mapped onto the cosmological account of suc- 
ceeding ages (see the homology of correspondences of Table 3.1). In 
other words, in Iranian tradition, as in Indie, each age is affiliated with 
a specific social class in the relative descending order of 1) priests, 2) 
warriors, and 3) goods producers. 

Add to these a third consideration. The description of the fourth 
and final age, which sees the undoing of just religion and ordered soci- 
ety, is cast in terms of Zoroastrian historicized eschatology - it is a time 
of demonic rule. Even so, in spite of Mazdean reworking of inherited 
Indo-Iranian tradition, there remain specific references to elements of 
society functioning outside of their appropriate arena and to the blur- 
ring or inverting of social divisions, much as in Mahabharata 3 . Within 
the Zoroastrian litany of fourth-age lamentations, frequent reference is 
made to the degeneration of religious ritual ( Vahman Yast 2.36— 7, 45-6) 
and of priests being treated with contempt (2.38-9) or forsaking their 
priestly responsibilities and devotions (2.40); commoners will marry 
the daughters of priests and noble persons (2.38); the unqualified will 
make legal and religious pronouncements (2.39); noble persons will beg 
and debase themselves (2.47); slaves will acquire sovereignty (2.49). To 
these similarities between the Indie and Iranian tradition could be added 
numerous shared symptoms of the final age that do not relate directly 
to social-class breakdown. 

In both the Vahman Yast (1.5 and 2.22) and the Denkard the final 
age of Zardust’s vision is described as one of “mixed iron.” 181 In a 
completely parallel fashion, in the Iranian version of the tradition that is 
reflected in Daniel chapter two, the culmination of the fourth and final 
kingdom is presented in terms of “clay mixed with iron.” For the Jewish 
prophet, the statue’s feet of mixed iron serve to symbolize that the final 
foretold kingdom is one in which “they will mix with one another in 
marriage, but they will not hold together” (2:43). While the prophet 
has turned a foreign-born idea to a message of hope and promise for his 
own time and people — true to his role as a Biblical prophet — in origin, 
the notion of a “mixing in marriage that does not hold together” must 
have been engendered in an Iranian tradition of the social mixing of — 
the loss of distinction and proper ordering of — the Indo-Iranian classes, 
one that leads to the dissolution of society, a symptom of the diminution 
of order in the final age. As we have seen, there also occur in the Indie 
tradition explicit references to the intermarrying of brdhmana, ksatriya, 
and vaisya classes in the last age, the kaliyuga, as there are references 
in the Zoroastrian text to perverse marriages between the lowly and 


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the high-born in the final, “mixed” age. This cosmological doctrine 
of social mixing, of the mingling and confusion of the canonical Indo- 
European classes, and accompanying upheavals of the final age, must be 
at least Proto-Indo-Iranian in its inception. 

Hesiod's Mixed Iron “Age” 

And so we return to Hesiod. In the lines of the Greek poet, the notion 
of “mixed” receives a no less explicit expression in the description of 
the final age, the age of iron ( Works and Days 174-84): 

But after that ... I wish I’d not have been among the men 
Of generation five, but that I’d died before, or else been 

later born. 175 

For now indeed’s a race of iron; and never will their toil 
And sorrow cease by day, nor exhaustion in the night; 

The gods shall give them grievous cares. 

But even so for them will good be mixed with ill. 179 

And Zeus will end this race of mortal men as well, 180 

When’er at birth gray hair is on their temples seen. 18 1 

A father his children will not resemble, nor children their father; 
And neither guest to host, nor comrade to comrade, 

Nor brother will be dear, as in the former time. 

Line 184 is followed by a running list of yet more sorrowful symptoms 
marking the end of the time of the race of iron (symptoms to which we 
have already alluded) : people — ruthless and ignorant of the wrath of the 
gods — will dishonor and bemean their parents; exercising power as they 
wish (“might makes right”), one man will sack the city of another; there 
will be no gratitude for oath-keepers and the just; the low-born man 
will defame the noble and oath-swear that his crooked words ( muthoi ) 
are truth; Zelos (‘Envy’ — the evil one) roams abroad; and Nemesis and 
Aidos flee the earth. After our exploration of the Indie and Iranian 
traditions, this is all familiar territory. 

In his commentary on the Works and Days, West notes that lines 
179—81 (those italicized above) “seem to interrupt the train of thought 
inopportunely: 182 ff. look more like a continuation from 178 than a 
series of portents parallel to grey-haired babies.” 182 Leaving aside the 
matter of portents (lines 180—81) for the moment, one must agree that 
line 179 (bold and italicized) looks and feels decidedly out of place. This, 
however, is an artifact of translation. 


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Line 179 is of course the one that encodes the notion of ‘mixed’ 
or ‘mingled’ ( memeiksetai [pepei^etcxi]) - as we have seen, a fundamental 
characteristic of descriptions of iron-age society. The translation that I 
offered above — “But even so for them will good be mixed with ill” — is 
one typical of this line. What is being “mixed” is esthla (ectQAoc) with 
kakoisi (KOCKoIcn). In a typical reading of this line, these two neuter 
plural adjectives are interpreted as functioning (substantivally) as nouns: 
that is, ‘good things’ and ‘evil things’, respectively. As West notes, 183 
Hesiod also invokes good and evil together in Theogony 609-10, where 
remarking on the man who has married a. good wife, the poet declares, 
misogynistically, that his is a life in which evil (singular kakon [kcxkov]) 
is constantly set against ( antipherizdei [avTi<j>£pi££i]) good (singular estlilo 
[eo-QAcd]); see Clay’s remarks cited previously. 

The idea that the human condition is characterized by the pres- 
ence of both good and ill is one that is familiar to early Greek poets - 
as, undoubtedly, to the greater part of humanity, at all times, in all 
places. Homer knows it. In Odyssey 15.488-9, he places on the lips of 
Odysseus the phrase, addressed to the swineherd Eumaeus, “Zeus has 
surely given you good (. esthlon [ectQAov]) alongside ill ( kako [koikco])”; 
the utterance may very well be an adaptation of a common proverbial 
expression. 184 The concept recurs, embroidered with mythic details, in 
Iliad 24.525—33, as a mournful Achilles speaks to the grieving Trojan 
king, Priam, come to the Greek camp to collect the body of his son, 
Hector: 185 

For thus the gods have spun the thread for wretched 

mortalkind 525 

To live with grief — but they themselves are sorrow free. 

Two jars there are that sit in Zeus’s floor — of gifts 
He gives — from one come ills, and blessings from the other. 

To him whom thunder-loving Zeus should grant a mix, 

He meets with ill at times, at other times with good; 530 

But whom he gives of only sorrows, him he makes the fool 
Of fortune — baneful hunger drives him on across the earth 

And here and there he wanders, honored not by gods nor 

The ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition knew well this motif 
of the god who seemingly (from a human perspective) arbitrarily sends 
both good and ill to mortals: it is the problem of the so-called righteous 


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sufferer. Thus, for example, in a Babylonian poetic text of the later 
second millennium BC — Ludlul Bel Netneqi (‘I Will Praise the Lord 
of Wisdom’) — one Subsi-mesre-Sakkan rehearses how at the hands 
of his god Marduk he has fallen from prosperity into disease, ruin and 
rejection. The poem begins with a hymn to Marduk in which the deity’s 
apparent capriciousness is rehearsed again and again, in lines such as 
(Tablet i, lines 13-14, 23-4): 

He it is, in the brunt of whose anger many graves are dug, 

At the same moment, he raises the fallen from annihilation. 

He speaks and makes one incur many sins, 

On the day of his justice liability and guilt are dispelled. 186 

Forsaken by Marduk, other gods desert the sufferer, who wanders down- 
cast and defamed (Tablet 1, 77-83): 

I, who walked proudly, learned slinking, 

I, so grand, became servile. 

To my vast family I became a loner, 

As I went through the streets, I was pointed at, 80 

I would enter the palace, eyes would squint at me, 

My city was glowering at me like an enemy, 

Belligerent and hostile would seem my land! 1 ' 1 * 7 

The ways of the gods are incomprehensible (Tablet 2, lines 43-5): 

(What the gods) intend for people changes in a twinkling: 
Starving, they become like corpses, 

Full, they would rival their gods. 188 45 

There is a flip side to the Greek view that Zeus doles out a mix 
of good and ill, or only ill, to a person. When Nausicaa, the Phaeacian 
princess, finds the destitute Odysseus washed up on the shores of her 
isle, she tells him that “Olympian Zeus himself dispenses happiness to 
humans — both to the good ( esthlois [(scrQAoTs)]) and to the bad ( kakoisi 
[KCXKoicn]) — to each one as he wishes” ( Odyssey 6.188—9). 

Did such sentiments exert some measure of influence on “Hes- 
iod’s” own signification of the line 179 — shaped and reshaped through- 
out the oral performance history of Works and Days ? Possibly so; 


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they have certainly influenced Hesiod’s modern interpreters. The 
comparative evidence provided by Indie and Iranian parallels reveals, 
however, that the fundamental sense of the verse in its inception must 
certainly have been different from that conveyed in the above (“typi- 
cal”) translation (and, following from that, that lines 179—81 do not in 
fact “interrupt the train of thought,” as will become clear). As in the 
homologous Indo-Iranian traditions, the entities being mingled in the 
final age are not “good things” and “bad things” - the good and bad 
experiences of life - but social classes. In other words, a more accurate 
translation of line 179 would be something like: 

But just the same, also among them the noble will be mingled 

with the low-born. 

The verb is a future perfect ( memeiksetai [pspsl^ETai]), indicating that 
this intermingling will be an ongoing state of affairs characterizing the 
race of iron — precisely the picture painted in the Iranian and, especially, 
Indie descriptions of the final age. And why does Hesiod say “also”? To 
that we shall return. 

Greek Evidence: Hesiod and Theognis Interwoven with the com- 
parative evidence are at least two strands of Greek-internal evidence. 
First there is the remarkably apropos elegiac poem 183-92 of the archaic 
Greek poet Theognis. An aristocratic resident of the Greek city of 
Megara during the mid-sixth, or perhaps more likely, the second half of 
the seventh century BC, extending into the sixth, 189 Theognis laments 
the social changes taking place in his world, particularly the loss of class 
distinctions. People insist on having purebred livestock, he declares, but 
a noble man ( esthlos aner [scrQAos avfip]) has no qualms about marry- 
ing the low-born daughter of a low-born man ( kaken kakou [KOCKijv 
kockoO]) if there is a profit in the deal (lines 185—6); and, vice versa, a 
woman is willing to become the wife of a low-born man ( kakou andros 
[kockoO avSpos]) if he has money (lines 187-8). In sum (lines 189-92): 

. . . Both the noble man marries the daughter of the lowly, 

And the lowly man the daughter of the noble; money has 

mingled genes. 190 

So do not marvel, Polypaides, 190 that the citizens’ genes 
Are being watered down: for the noble are being mingled with 
the low-born. 


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The vocabulary throughout answers to that of Hesiod’s lines: the 
“noble” (. esthlos [ectQAos]); the “low-born” ( kakos [kcxkos]); a “mingling” 
of the two (verb stem mi(s)g- [pi(csjy-]). Each with their common verb 
and neuter plural adjectives, Theognis’ decrying of a present social 
upheaval in line 192 — “the noble are being mingled with the low- 
born” - recapitulates Hesiods prophetic warning of a future state of 
affairs in Works and Days 179 — “the noble will be mingled with the 
low-born.” In both Hesiod and Theognis we are surely dealing with 
the archaic (and inherited) stock-in-trade language of what was per- 
ceived to be the reprobate intermingling of the elements of society. 
While both poets’ verses have a certain stand-alone proverbial ring, 
Theognis’ line is nested within a fuller contextual framework; and from 
a similar greater formulaic context, Hesiod’s must have been extracted. 
That context, in conjunction with the comparative evidence adduced 
above, suggests to us that for Hesiod (line 179), no less than for Theognis 
(line 192), the neuter adjectives esthlon and kakon ( esthla and kaka) have 
lexically-specific referents, namely, the neuter noun genos (ysvos), which 
Theognis uses in lines 190 and 191, prefacing the “mingling” phrase 
of 192. 

This word -genos - is one that, in some of its uses, has no comfort- 
able equivalent in present-day English. 191 In the translation of lines 190 
and 191 above, I have rendered it by English ‘genes’ (and not only for 
the etymological connection). For their translations, Gerber and West 
both choose ‘blood’ and ‘stock’ (for lines 190 and 191, respectively); 192 
Wender has ‘blood’ (190) and ‘race’ (191); 193 Fowler opts for ‘breed’ 
(190) and ‘line’ (191); 194 and Mulroy for ‘lineage’ (in 190 only — avoid- 
ing direct translation in 191). 195 It is a word of great antiquity, existing 
already in Proto-Indo-European *genh 1 -os, leaving descendants not only 
in Greek, but in Latin (genus ‘birth, origin, race, class’) and Sanskrit 
(Janas- ‘race’) as well. From its root * genii r (‘to give birth, to beget’) 
plus various appended suffixes, numerous words were formed in descen- 
dent Indo-European languages that were used to designate various units 
and levels of social structure: for example, Latin gens (‘race, class’, and 
a term for a family group); Old English cynn (‘race, family’); Avestan 
zantu- (‘tribe’); Sanskrit jam- (‘race, tribe, people’). 196 

Greek genos is of course the very term that Hesiod employs for 
conceptually framing his presentation of the myth of “ages.” Rather 
than temporal ages or epochs of sovereignty, he talks of a “golden genos 
of mortal men” (line 109); which is followed in turn by a “silver genos, 
far inferior to the golden, like them neither in body nor mind” (lines 
127—9); and then a “third genos of mortal men — one of bronze — not at all 


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TABLE 3.2. Comparison of Greek and Indie Traditions 

Greek Genos Indie Yuga and Varna 





Iron (The period of mingled 

Krtayuga: Brahmana 
Tretayuga: Ksatriya 
Dvaparayuga: Vaisya 

Kaliyuga: Sudra (The period of 
mingled varnas ) 

the same as the silver” (lines 143-4). The poet’s introductory description 
of the fourth genos, the heroes, is subtly different: they are said to be a 
godlike gen os, demigods, lauded as simply “more just and nobler” - the 
implicit progressive degradation characterizing the previous three gene 
is here reversed. Less subtle is the very presence of the heroes in this 
logos of metallic ages - Hesiods conspicuous addition. Finally comes 
the “genos that is iron,” with all its attendant woes - the degradation is 
brought to fulfillment. 

Once genos is identified as the referent of Hesiods adjectives in line 
179 (“the noble [genos] will be mingled with the low-born [genos]”), an 
unexpected, though fully transparent, parallelism reveals itself between 
the early Greek tradition upon which Hesiod is drawing and its Indie 
cognate. Consider Table 3.2. 

Each age is affiliated with a particular genos or a particular varna; 
and, more idiosyncratically, the final age is not only affiliated with a 
particular genos / varna, but also with a mixing of gene/ varnas. In India, 
the kaliyuga, identified with the social class (varna) of the non-Indo- 
European sudras , 197 is that period characterized by a disordered and 
degenerate jumbling of the social classes ( varnas ) that are individually 
affiliated with the various ages ( yugas ) that precede — a mixing realized 
not only through intermarriage between distinct classes but through 
the topsy-turvy interchanging and confusion of the proper respective 
functions of those classes. The picture painted of the final age in Iranian 
tradition provides an exact match in this regard. The era of the final, 
iron genos in the early Greek tradition is precisely the same — the chaotic 
period in which the gene — equivalent to the Indie varnas — are mingled, 
noble with base. In the Greek tradition, as in the Indie, this destructive 
“mingling” undoubtedly was not only construed as social but as func- 
tional — or dysfunctional — as in its Indo-Iranian counterpart — a result 
made clear in Hesiod’s prophetic depiction of the inevitable future of his 

1 42 

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Hesiod and Greek Mytii 

own time. Vernant’s description (cited above) of that period - the “age 
of iron in its decline” — would apply equally well to its Indo-Iranian 
homologue: “essentially that of a revolt against order; an upside-down 
world where every hierarchy, rule, and value is inverted.” 

In the early Greek tradition that Hesiod is utilizing, in its full form 
and at some sufficiently ancient moment, the crucial social elements of 
each era, which Hesiod dubs gene, were undoubtedly explicitly invoked 
(as in India) in the narrative of iron-age decline. While there are reflexes 
of the more ancient arrangement preserved in Works and Days, as we 
shall see, Hesiod in his account of the final age makes no such explicit 
reference to the gene affiliated with the preceding periods — and could 
not, perhaps, do so, given the manner in which he has recast the tradi- 
tion. In effect, what Hesiod has done is to take the inherited final-age 
tradition of the jumbled dissolution of the elements of (i) sovereignty, 
(ii) war and, (iii) goods-production and to project that topos subtly and 
cleverly back onto the preceding periods, in keeping with his program- 
matic contrast of dike and lutbris. Now it is the sphere of sovereignty that 
is degeneratively set against itself through the dichotomous opposition 
that Hesiod creates between the golden and the “far less noble” silver 
gene: in the end Zeus destroys the silver genos. It is the same with the 
warrior element: the bronze genos ( hubris ) that annihilating itself sinks 
nameless into Hades’ realm dichotomously opposed to the heroic genos 
(dike) . And finally, Hesiod’s own ambiguous iron genos knows a present 
in which dike is possible, as opposed to a future in which hubris will 
run rampant and society will unravel completely — and Zeus will again 
bring destruction. 

More than this, Hesiod retrojects yet other final-age traits on the 
earlier gene. The peculiar birthing and childhood phenomena charac- 
teristic of that final period in the several traditions show up in the silver 
genos, which Hesiod portrays as having an overlong childhood (ioo years 
by mother’s side) followed by a very short — and sorrowful — adult life. 
The Greek poet foretells that there will be a lack of intergenerational 
resemblance in the declining iron age — “A father his children will not 
resemble, nor children their father.” Given the context in which the 
prophetic pronouncement occurs (line 182), this must certainly be con- 
strued as a consequence of the mingling of the noble and the low-born 
(line 179). Similarly, Hesiod declares that the silver genos was like the 
golden “neither in body nor mind” (line 129), and that the bronze was 
“not at all the same 198 as the silver” (line 144). 

Bearing in mind the Greek poet’s transference of traditional fmal- 
age social dissolution to earlier ages (instrumental in elaborating his 


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system of dichotomies), we must revisit the (revised) translation of line 
179 — the line with which we began this discussion: 

But just the same, also among them the noble will be mingled 
with the low-born. 

The presence of “also” (Greek kai [ml]) in the line must be dictated by 
Hesiod’s incorporation of the topos of a mixing of noble and base, of 
positive and negative, among the several gene that precede the iron age. 
And not only that — for the same motif of “mixed” is conspicuously 
evident in the age — that intrinsically hybrid age — that immediately 
precedes the age of iron: that of the heroes - demigods. As Clay has 
reminded us, the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus writes, among his 
Hesiodic scholia, that “the demigods constitute . . . ‘that which is a mix- 
ture from gods and men’” — a mixing of positive and negative of another 
sort, that of immortal and mortal. 1 " The contrast of the hybrid iron 
age of cosmic dissolution with the preceding age of the hybrid heroes 
functionally parallels the contrast of the two hybrid categories of the 
Theogony. Clay’s observation regarding those two groups (quoted above) 
would be equally applicable to the contrast of iron age with heroic: 
“Hesiod calls attention to the different kinds of pl^is [tnixis], the one 
positive and controlled, the other destructive and disordered.” 200 

Greek Evidence: Hesiod and Homer The claim that iron-age inter- 
mingling is to be understood as one that occurs between elements of 
society (rather than simply being a mixture of good and bad experiences) 
is further supported by the lines that immediately follow the prophecy 
of children and parents not resembling one another (lines 183—4): 

And neither guest to host, nor comrade to comrade, 

Nor brother will be dear, as in the former time. 

Each clause involves the violation of a social relationship — guests and 
hosts, comrades, brothers — in the time of the iron genos. Hesiod has enu- 
merated and distributed these three relationships not haphazardly, but 
in a way that conforms to the primitive Indo-European social structure 
that is crucial to the ancestral myth of the ages. 

Xenos and Philos: The Domain of Kings In the dissolution of the final age, 
a guest — Greek xenos (^evos) — will no longer be dear — philos (<pl Aos) — 
to his host — xenodokos (^evoBokos). The guest— host relationship, a 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

type of institutionalized reciprocal friendship, was one of paramount 
importance in ancient Greece. The system provided a means whereby a 
stranger could be ensured lodging, personal care, and rights of protec- 
tion when visiting a foreign place through the pledge of his host, who, in 
turn, would enjoy the same privileges whenever he might travel to the 
homeland of his guest. Such formalized guest-host relationships were 
hereditary, being extended for generations beyond the initial pledge. 
The practice was especially associated with kings - indeed, it was “the 
alternative to marriage in forging bonds between rulers” 201 — though 
was utilized by other aristocratic elements of archaic society as well. 
Mutually beneficial relationships between distant parties could thus be 
brokered: “In this respect a guest-friend was like a king; his worth was 
in direct proportion to his power.” 202 

Hesiod’s choice of words in these verses can be no accident. In his 
study of philos - the word translated nebulously in line 184 as ‘dear’ - 
and the related noun pliilotes ((JhAottis), Emile Benveniste points out 
there is a particular connection in Homer between philos and xenos, a 
connection that is so fundamental that it provides insight into the proper 
meaning of philos, a word of uncertain etymology: 

The notion of philos expresses the behavior required by a 
member of the community with regard to the xenos, the 
“guest” stranger 

The pact concluded under the name pliilotes makes the con- 
tractual parties philoi : they are thereby bound to a reciprocity 
of services that constitute “hospitality.” 203 

The connection is further evidenced by the Homeric compound 
philoxenos (<J>iA6^evos), denoting a “hospitable” person — one “for whom 
the xenos is philos .” 204 We encounter the word, for example, on the lips 
of shipwrecked Odysseus prior to his meeting with Nausicaa ( Odyssey 
6.120—21): awakened by the voices of the princess and other Phaeacian 
women, Odysseus frantically asks himself on whose shores he might have 
been washed up — are they a people of hubris, wild and without dike? — 
or are they a people that show philos to a xenos (philoxenoi ) and whose 
mind is set on “revering the gods” — theoudes ( 0 eouSf]s)? These formu- 
laic lines will be repeated exactly at Odyssey 9.175-6, when Odysseus 
speaks of discovering what sort of beings the Cyclopes may be, and at 
13.201— 2, upon his unknowing return to his homeland, Ithaca. Homer 
also convenes a similar assemblage of traits, negative and positive, when 


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Alcinous the Phaeacian king, who has warmly welcomed Odysseus 
into his home, asks the wanderer to tell him of the many people he has 
encountered in his odyssey - of those who are harsh, wild, and without 
dike, and of those who rightly receive a stranger ( philoxenoi ) and have a 
god-revering ( theoudes ) mind ( Odyssey 8.575-6). 

That one who is philoxenos - showing philos to the guest stranger - 
should also be said to be theoudes - revering the gods - comes as no 
surprise; this is no haphazard concatenation of adjectives on the poet’s 
part. Zeus himself, sovereign deity, is at times called Zeus Xenios - 
“protector of suppliants and xenoi (guest strangers), the god who walks 
by the side of the esteemed xenoi” ( Odyssey 9.270-71). Homer has the 
swineherd Eumaeus tell Odysseus - disguised as a beggar and received 
kindly into the herdsman s humble hovel — that “all xenoi and beggars are 
from Zeus; my gift [hospitality] is small but philos” ( Odyssey 14.57-9) ~ 
again, formulaic phrasing, uttered similarly by Nausicaa upon finding 
Odysseus ( Odyssey 6.207-8). 

In contrast to the Phaeacians and Eumaeus, the savage Cyclops 
Polyphemus, who trapped Odysseus and his men within his cave, is 
by no means philoxenos. After Odysseus reminds Polyphemus of Zeus 
Xenios and the god’s protection of the guest stranger, the Cyclops bel- 
lows ( Odyssey 9.273-8): 

A fool you are, O xenos, or else you’ve come from far away, 

You who’d order me to fear the gods or skirt their path; 

For we Cyclopes pay no mind to aegis-bearing Zeus 275 

Nor any of the blessed gods, since better far are we than 

Nor I’d spare your life — evading Zeus’s wrath — 

Your comrades’ either — not unless my heart should bid me to. 

As Finley observes: “The giant was to pay for his hubris soon enough, 
tricked by the superior craftiness of god-fearing Odysseus.” 205 

It is the gods, and Zeus most particularly, who set the standards 
for the treatment of the guest stranger — for the proper social response — 
one of philos toward the xenos . 206 And the social relationship of xenos 
(guest stranger) and xenodokos (host) is one that has particular affiliations 
with kings — and no less so with the king of gods. We find that Hesiod 
has gingerly and skillfully turned his audience back to his central theme; 
whether Homer assumes Hesiod (as Accius thought), or Hesiod Homer, 
or — almost certainly — both some common tradition, 207 the conjunc- 
tion of hubris and dike and the sphere of kings is here unmistakable. 


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Hesiod’s prophetic message is one of the coming utter decay of right 
social relations within that realm — the ancient Indo-European realm of 

Hetairos and Philos: The Domain of Warriors But it is not only the rela- 
tionship of guest and host that will cease to be governed by philos ; 
the right relating of comrade to comrade will likewise fall victim to 
social dissolution. The word translated “comrade” in line 183 is Greek 
hetairos (eTOUpos). Early Greek knows the term first and foremost as 
‘comrade-in-arms’ — in the plural, ‘a band of warrior followers,’ such as 
the Myrmidons of Achilles. 208 To return to the Phaeacians — when the 
hospitable Alcinous spies Odysseus weeping as a bard sings of Greeks 
and their vanquishing of Troy, the king wishes to know the reason for 
his guest’s tears: did some kinsman or friend fall before the city — or 
some cherished hetairos ( Odyssey 8.581—5)? 

At the heart of Homer’s Iliad is the tale of Achilles and his ill-fated, 
cherished hetairos, Patroclus — most philos to Achilles of all hetairoi ( Iliad 
17.411) . Angry with Agamemnon for taking away his slave-lover Briseis, 
Achilles has withdrawn from combat and from his hetairoi, but allows 
Patroclus to put on his own (Achilles’) armor and enter the fray in his 
stead. Patroclus, the philos hetairos, is brutally slain ( Iliad 18.80). While, as 
West notes, “philos hetairos is a common expression from Homer on,” 209 
Nagy’s 1999 study 210 makes clear the salient conjunctions of hetairos and 
philos that surround Homer’s Achilles. It is the very death of Patroclus 
that turns Achilles back to a right relation with his hetairoi : 211 

But it is really Patroclus who restores the philotes ‘state of being 
philoi’ between Achilles and the Achaeans. As Sinos points 
out, Patroclus will have to sacrifice himself and die so that 
Achilles may recognize his social obligation to his philoi : 212 

“I did not become the Light for Patroclus or for the other hetairoi 
Who fell in great numbers at the hands of brilliant Hektor.” 

( Iliad 18.102-3) 

In Hesiod’s waning iron age the hetairos will likewise fail to recog- 
nize “his social obligation to his philoi,” but — unlike the case of Homer’s 
Achilles — there will be no redemption for the warrior. The realm of the 
warrior, no less than that of the sovereign, will experience a complete 
degeneration of right social relations as the age draws to an end. 


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Brother and Philos: Domain of the Goods-Producer The pattern that we see 
emerging in lines 183—4 is clear. The poet is explicitly invoking the three 
canonical Indo-European social classes in his prophetic pronouncement 
of the apocalyptic demise of society - the same classes whose intermin- 
gling is both a symptom and cause of that dissolution - matching point 
for point the Indo-Iranian tradition, mutatis mutandis. Thus far it is the 
sovereign and warrior classes whose coming loss of philos has been pro- 
claimed — now it is the turn of the goods-producers — or so we would 

What we find in the third position, however, is the poet’s lamenting 
of the loss of familial philos : “Nor brother will be philos, as in the former 
time” (line 184). But Works and Days is, of course, at its core centrally 
concerned with the loss of a brother’s philos - and that brother is Perses - 
the farmer - the goods-producer. 

The loss of philos is directed precisely at the three ancestral Indo- 
European social classes. We see that this “Hesiod” has exercised a certain 
poetic license, while at the same time remaining unmistakably faithful 
to inherited Indo-European ideology. We perceive a light emanating 
from a distant Indo-European source, refracted through the prism of 
archaic Greece. 


Hesiod reveals himself to be heir to a deeply archaic Indo-European 
cosmological tradition, one that, I have argued, has its beginnings at 
least as early as the period of communality of the ancestors of the Greeks 
and Indo-Iranians. In India the tradition is plainly a cyclic one — after 
the final, degenerate age is destroyed, dharma is renewed and a new 
“golden” age appears; and so the process begins again. Undoubtedly the 
cognate Iranian tradition was the same — cyclic — until Zarathustra and 
his disciples transformed it into a tradition of apocalyptic progression 
culminating in Ahura Mazdah’s consummation of history. A fossil of 
an earlier Iranian cyclicity is likely to be found in the several distinct 
sequential millennial stages that make up the Zoroastrian tradition. 

The tradition that Hesiod knows is unmistakably a cyclic one as 
well — the poet plainly tells us so: he wishes that he had died before 
the iron age, or else been born afterward. And though the poet predicts 
that the close of his iron age will see a definitive end of those mortals 
unfortunate enough to be members of that genos, he encodes within 
Works and Days a message of renewal and of the restoration of order — of 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

the return of dharma. For what follows his logos of the ages constitutes, 
grosso modo, nothing less than a prescription for the restoration of order. 
After the ensuing injunctions to Perses and the kings, the remainder of 
the poem is a compendium of sage advice for living prosperously and 
in conformity with dike. Though the genre generally and many of the 
poem’s particular didactic elements find equivalents within the Near 
East, as demonstrated above, it is interesting that particular threads of 
advice have close parallels in Indie tradition. Thus, West and Nagy have 
pointed out that lines 727-32 and 757-9, in which Hesiod rehearses 
prohibitions against urinating while standing and facing the sun, while 
on the road, or into rivers and streams, are close to admonitions in the 
Laws of Mann 4.45-52 - a work, as we have seen, concerned with the 
preservation of dharma in a world given to unraveling. 213 Nagy offers an 
additional, highly a propos, insight: 

The legal traditions of the Indie peoples are clearly cog- 
nate with those of the Greeks, and in this connection it 
is especially interesting to observe the uses of memnemenos 
‘being mindful’ at Works and Days 728, in the specific con- 
text of the injunctions now being considered, as well as else- 
where. . . . The root *men- / *mneh 2 - of memnemenos recurs 
in the Indie name Mann-, meaning ‘the mindful one’: this 
ancestor of the human race gets his name (which is cognate 
with English man ) by virtue of being mindful at a sacrifice. 
Manu is the prototypical sacrificer, whose sheer virtuosity in 
what Sylvain Levi called “the delicate art of sacrifice” con- 
fers upon him an incontestable authority in matters of ritual 
[my emphasis]. Since sacrificial correctness is the founda- 
tion of Indie law, the entire Indie corpus of juridical/moral 
aphorisms is named after him. 214 

Hesiod’s restorative prescription for dike — for dharma — undoubtedly 
was no less a matter bound up with ritual — of the performance of his 
gnomic epic in ritual setting — a setting of ritual empowerment. 

And what of the cosmogony? Does Hesiod preserve any vestige 
of that Indo-European cosmogony of the primeval giant whose body 
is divided for the creation of the cosmos — from whose body the three 
strata of Indo-European society were formed? Almost certainly. 

In a somewhat enigmatically 215 worded verse (line 26) in the proem 
of the Theogony, the Muses, just prior to endowing Hesiod with poetic 


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craft, speak to him a muthos, addressing him — Hesiod the shepherd — as 
a “belly” (gaster [yoccrrfip]): 

Shepherds of the fields, lowly shameful things, mere bellies. 

Shepherds are “lowly” - kakos, Theognis’- and Hesiod’s - term for the 
low-born element of society. They are only “bellies” — having their ori- 
gin in that lower portion of the cosmic giant’s body, source of the goods- 
producing class, the Indo-European herders. Whatever synchronic use 
“Hesiod” has made of the phrasing , 216 we must see on the diachronic 
axis an endpoint lying in the Indo-European cosmogony — the cos- 
mogony that we found in India, and Iran, to be tightly interwoven with 
the cosmology of ages . 217 

The Warp and Woof of Works and Days 

There is much more that could be said regarding Hesiod’s use of inher- 
ited Indo-European mythic, religious, and ritual tradition . 218 This, 
however, will be enough, perhaps, to persuade the reader that Indo- 
European traditions do indeed survive in Greece. The playful, creative 
use to which Hesiod puts these inherited notions and conventions and 
the freedom that he displays in restructuring them on the surface, while 
preserving what we might term underlying structures, suggests to us that 
this “Hesiod” is fully conversant with traditions of his Indo-European 
ancestors. The ease with which he navigates the ancient Indo-European 
ideology of social tripartition and the confident skill with which he 
manipulates that ideology to his own ends reveal a comfortable famil- 
iarity with it. This is not the tired reworking of a tradition borrowed 
from some distant place and people but the playful juggling of an inher- 
ited tradition close at hand to the poet. 

At the same moment, the poet exercises the freedom to frame these 
inherited Indo-European materials within a form acquired from the 
Near East — that of the didactic discourse. Here we see clearly the process 
of weaving together the disparate threads that must be common to the 
manufacture of the fabric of Greek mythic tradition. Perhaps the weave 
will prove to be so tight outside of Hesiod that the individual threads 
cannot often be so satisfyingly identified. Or perhaps with sufficient 
patience and scrutiny, we may be able more broadly to tease apart the 
warp and woof of Greek myth. 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

Suggested Reading 

Lamberton (1988) provides a helpful overview of Hesiod’s works for 
general readers. For the Theogony and Works and Days, West (1966) and 
(1978) are, respectively, standard commentaries, containing much valu- 
able scholarly discussion, complemented by West (1997). Clay (2003) 
offers an integrated interpretation of the two poems. Hunter (2005) 
consists of thirteen recent articles treating various aspects of the Catalog 
of Women, within which can be found numerous references to earlier 
work on the topic. See, in the same volume, Richard Martin’s chapter 
on Hesiod’s Shield, with bibliography. For all of the preceding works, 
helpful scholarly treatments can be found injanko (1982). Nagy (1990a) 
should be consulted for discussion of Hesiod and pan-Hellenism vis- 
a-vis Greek myth. For further treatment of many of the specific issues 
discussed above, the reader will find numerous bibliographic references 
within the notes. 


1 Gellius (3. 11. 1— 3) also tells us that the Greek historian Ephorus (fourth century 
BC) held a similar chronological view, while Philochorus (fourth/third century) 
and Xenophanes (sixth century) contend the opposite. See also n. 2 below. 

2 “That Hesiod is earlier than Homer is no revolutionary view; but as the reverse is 
taken as axiomatic by most writers, it may be worth recalling that until the latter 
part of the fourth century BC, Hesiod’s priority was widely accepted” — so West 
(1966) 46—7 reminds his readers. On the relative chronology of Hesiod and other 
early Greek poets and on chronological issues generally, see West (1966) 40—48; 
West (1978) 30-33- 

3 On Hesiod’s biographic statement as literary persona, see, inter alia, Stoddard (2004) 
1— 33 , with references to scholarly work of each persuasion: for the literary persona 
view, see especially Nagy (1982, 1990b) and Griffith (1983); for recent advocates 
of the biographic position, see Stein (1990) and Nelson (1998). Edwards (2004) 
19—25 argues that Hesiod the poet may have constructed a herder— farmer literary 
persona for himself, but that “if [he] does not really belong to this group, then 
he has successfully fashioned a persona for Works and Days able to voice their 
perspective on the world” (p. 25). 

4 On the process by which a more localized Greek epic could undergo diffusion 
to become Panhellenic and the implications of such diffusion, see, inter alia, Nagy 
(1996a, 1996b, 2003). 

5 Nagy (1990b) 79. 

6 Cf. West (1966) 150. West notes that the title Theogony is first attested in the 
work of the third-century Stoic, Chrysippus. On Alexandrian scholars and their 
contributions to the traditions of Greek mythology, see chapter seven, “Hellenistic 
My thographers . ” 


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7 For discussion with bibliography, see West (1966) 12—16. 

8 Janko (2001) 1. For a translation of the papyrus, seejanko, pp. 18—33. 

9 Burkert (2004) 89—98. On the Orphic texts in general, see West (1983). 

10 The text of the Theogony used herein is that of West (1966); the text of Works and 
Days is that of West (1978). 

11 On the significance of the distinction between the Heliconian and Olympian 
Muses, see, inter alia, Nagy (1990b) 57—61; Clay (2003) 54—7. For a structural analysis 
of the Theogony from the perspective ofPanhellenic performance, see Nagy (1990b) 
53 - 6 . 

12 West (1966) 276—7 observes: “It is a section of extreme interest for the student of 
Greek religion; for seldom elsewhere do we find a Greek setting out in so full a 
statement his personal beliefs concerning the nature of the powers of a god.” It 
is something rather different, of course, for those who see in “Hesiod” a literary 
persona; see the discussion in Stoddard (2004) 7—15 . For helpful discussion of the 
“Hymn to Hecate” with recent bibliography, see Clay (2003) 129—40. 

13 The tale of Prometheus and Pandora is retold in Works and Days 47—105; on the 
variations between the two tellings, see Clay (2003) 100—128, with references to 
earlier work. 

14 On the “authenticity” of the passage, as well as that of several lines at the end of 
the preceding section (by my division of the text), see West (1966) 356—8. 

15 Gaea is predominantly supportive of Zeus, though Hesiod has just presented her as 
coupling with Tartarus to produce a creature that will overthrow Zeus, continuing 
the cycle of heavenly coups. Toward a resolution of this seemingly inconsistent 
behavior, see, inter alia, Clay (2003) 26—8; West (1966) 23—4. 

16 See Burkert (2004) 35—7, (1992) 90, who emphasizes the similarity of the Iliad pas- 
sage and the division of the cosmos into three parts found in the Mesopotamian 
Atrahasis (for translations of various versions, see Foster (2005) 227—80). Burkert 
(2004) 37 observes: “No other passage in Homer comes so close to being a trans- 
lation of the Akkadian epic.” Mondi (1990) 165 finds a Canaanite parallel in a 
Ugaritic tradition that presents the gods Baal, Yamm, and Mot as “manifested, 
respectively, in the cosmic realms of the atmosphere, the sea, and the lower world 
of the dead.” 

17 For a summary of the evidence for this position, see West (1966) 397—9. 

18 West (1966) 398-9; Northrup (1983) - each with certain caveats. 

19 Nagy (1990b) 80. 

20 From a formal perspective, Nagy argues, the entire Theogony up to line 963 is “a 
hymn to the Muses, serving as a prelude to the catalogue of heroes and heroines 
that survives at verse 965—1020 [on which, see below]. . . . Thus verses 1—963 of 
the Theogony are not a single, but rather a composite, hymn in comparison with 
most Homeric Hymns”', Nagy (1990b) 56. 

21 On the Catalog of Women, see Hunter (2005); Clay (2003) 164—74. 

22 For a balanced assessment of the causes of this lapsus, see Burkert (1992) 1—7, with 
further references. 

23 For broad and reliable treatments of Near Eastern influences on early Greece, see 
especially Burkert (2004, 1992) and West (1997). 

24 This is not to suggest that all Classicists have become ardent students of the Near 
East and its formative influences. West (1997) x captures it well: “The discov- 
ery in the thirties and forties of the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi mythology, with its 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

undeniable anticipations of Hesiod’s Theogony, finally forced Hellenists to accept 
the reality of Near Eastern influence on early Greek literature. Since then they 
have shown themselves increasingly tolerant of oriental comparisons, if not partic- 
ularly active in investigating the oriental literatures for themselves. The outstanding 
exception is Walter Burkert, whose work will have opened many peoples eyes.” 
For an argument in favor of Hesiod’s “kingship-in-heaven” tradition having an 
Indo-European antecedent, see Allen (2004). 

25 For a summary account of the discovery and (ongoing) excavation of Bogazkoy, 
see Giiterbock (1997). 

26 On the Hurrians and their non-Indo-European language, see Wilhelm 

27 Three of the texts explicitly preserve the designation “song”; for others it is rea- 
sonably inferred. See Hoffner (1990) 38. 

28 See Hoffner (1990) 38, with references to earlier work on the several texts. 

29 The translation is that of Hoffner (1990) 41. 

30 One AMMATU is probably 0.5 meters; thirty of these units make one IKU; see 
Hoffner (1990) 82. 

31 Hoffner (1990) 54. 

32 Hittite is written with a cuneiform script consisting chiefly of syllabic (phonetic) 
characters; but Sumerian logograms (transliterated with Roman capitals) and frozen 
Akkadian syllabic spellings (Akkadograms — transliterated with italic capitals) are 
employed as well. On the Hittite writing system and its transliteration, see Watkins 
(2004) 552 - 5 . 

33 On the reconstruction of the text of the Song of Silver, see Hoffner (1990) 45—8 
and Hoffner (1988). 

34 See Hoffner (1988) 164: “Classical mythology is full of examples of mortals sired 
by gods from mortal women. And we know of at least one good example of 
this in one version of the Hattian— Hittite myth of Illuyanka. . . . Silver might have 
been such an offspring of god and woman.” On the dragon Illuyanka, see Hoffner 
(1990) 9—14; on Illuyanka vis-a-vis Typhoeus, see Watkins (1995) 448—59. 

35 There is likely another feature that binds together these two gods. The Hurrian 
deity Kumarbi is a god of grain; see West (1997) 280, (1966) 204—5. What little 
evidence there is for identifying the nature of Cronus beyond his theogonic role — 
chiefly the celebration of his festival, the Cronia, following harvest — suggests he 
was an agrarian deity as well. 

36 Mondi (1990) 155—6 notes Egyptian parallels to the swallowing of deities and, 
following Meltzer (1974), impregnation by blood that is shed from the genitals of 
a god. For parallels between the Orphic cosmogony and Egyptian traditions, see 
Burkert (2004) 93—98. 

37 One of whom is named KA.ZAL ‘shining face’ and is born out of Kumarbi’s head 
when some other deity cracks open the latter’s skull. On the striking similarity 
of this account to the birth of “flashing-eyed” Athena out of Zeus’s split skull 
( Theogony 924—5), see Hoffner (1975) 138, with further references. It is commonly 
Hephaestus who is credited with splitting Zeus’ skull, as in Pindar, Olympian Odes 
7 - 35 - 8 . 

38 At points, the Orphic theogony bears even closer resemblance to the Hittite tra- 
dition than does the Hesiodic; see Burkert (2004) 92—3 . 

39 Hoffner (1975) 138—9 discusses the alternating sequence of Hittite divine kings. 


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40 HofFner (1990) 39. I have modified Hoflner’s transliteration of some names to 
conform with the transliterations otherwise used herein. 

41 As it is in Homer; see Iliad 5.749—52 and the remarks in Kirk (1990) 136. 

42 The translation is adapted from Woodard, in press. 

43 On Akkadian titu ‘clay’ as the possible source of Greek Titenes, see Burkert (2004) 
33-4; (1992) 38, 95- 

44 West (1966) 201. On various Near Eastern traditions of gods imprisoned in the 
Netherworld, see Burkert (2004) 33; (1992) 94. West (1997) 298 compares the 
Titans, whom Hesiod also refers to as “former gods” ( Theogony 424, 486) to “the 
Hittite ‘Former Gods’ ( karuilies siunes). ...” The first occurrence is found in the 
Hecate passage and is, specifically, a reference to Cronus’ treatment of Hecate with 
regard to her proper share among the “former Titan gods.” The second reference 
again entails Cronus, and editors disagree as to how “former” is to be construed — 
“former king of the gods” or “king of the former gods.” 

45 In his account of the event, the (AD) fifth-century Egyptian Greek writer, Nonnus 
(Dionysiaca 1.481—534), identifies the rescuer as the Phoenician Cadmus. 

46 In certain other details Apollodorus’ account of Typhon (Typhoeus) also shows 
particular similarity to the Hittite tradition. For example, he situates the creature’s 
birth in Cilicia, a region of Anatolia (home of the Hittites), and his physical 
description of Typhon’s gargantuan size — towering above mountains, his head 
reaching to the very stars — is particularly reminiscent of the depiction of the stone 
giant in the Song of Ullikummi. 

47 There are, however, in regard to the intervening Hittite episodes, some enticing 
elements in the Hesiodic text. While considered in isolation they appear to have 
little comparative value, but when considered as features within manifestly parallel 
structures, they may take on greater significance. 

What does intervene between the Titanomachy and the birth of Typhoeus? 
Hesiod’s description of the Netherworld and attentiveness to its inhabitants (lines 
736—819): Atlas, the giant who supports the heavens on his head and arms; Nyx 
and Hemera; Hypnos and Thanatos; three-headed Cerberus; the river Styx. Just 
so, Hittite LAMMA, Silver, and Hedammu (the focus of attention in the Hittite 
texts) are all denizens of the Netherworld. And while there is no Hittite description 
of that place, it is tantalizing — bearing in mind that these intervening texts are 
only fragmentarily preserved — that in the surviving bits of the Song of Hedammu, 
Kumarbi sends explicit direction to the Sea God to journey to him through the 
Netherworld, “below river and earth” — a trek that will follow such a course that the 
Sea God will come up exactly below the seat of Kumarbi. Not only is he to do so 
in order to avoid detection by the Sun and Moon Gods, but so that the gods of the 
“Dark Earth” will not see him as well. The notion of a subterranean journey clearly 
suggests a Netherworld geography and, more particularly, a (vertical?) complexity 
to the Netherworld such that the Sea God can travel there unseen by even the 
chthonic deities. 

In his description ( Theogony 758 —66) of the children of Nyx ‘Night’ — Hypnos 
‘Sleep’ and Thanatos ‘Death’ and their goings forth — Hesiod says that Helios, the 
sun, never looks on Sleep (gentle and kind) and pitiless Death (iron-hearted and 
bronze-hearted) as he arches from horizon to horizon (lines 759—61). It would 
seem a curious statement — do Sleep and Death only come upon mortals at night? 
(cf. the remarks of Caldwell (1987) 70, n. 756— 66) — and more curious still in 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

that Helios is frequently said to see all things. One must compare Odyssey 11:17— 
18, where Homer tells that the city of the Cimmerians, by the entrance to the 
Netherworld, blanketed in clouds and mist, is never seen by Helios, and allow that 
what Hesiod is claiming is, somewhat similarly, that the sun’s rays never fall upon 
the Netherworld home of Sleep and Death (see West (1966) 368—9; Heubeck and 
Hoekstra (1989) 71—9). But one might also ponder an episode from one of the 
fragments of the Song of Silver, in which that Netherworld personification of 
metal pulls down the Sun and Moon from heaven, who then pay Silver homage 
and beg that he spare their lives, lest, with their lights extinguished, the lands that 
he governs be governed in darkness. 

48 The tradition of the Gigantomachy is, however, far older than Apollodorus and 
his Bibliotheca. From the sixth century BC on, it is a common theme of Greek art; 
see Schefold (1992) 54-67. 

49 Apollodorus 1.6.1; adapted from Woodard, in press. 

50 For an English translation of the Enuma Elis see, inter alia, Foster (2005) 436— 86 
and ANET (Speiser), pp. 60—72, from which latter source the quotations of the 
text appearing here have been drawn. 

51 Burkert (2004) 30—32, (1992) 92—3 explores the possibility that Greek Tethys 
[TqOus] ‘Tethys’, the name of the Titan consort of Oceanus and mother of rivers, 
is derived from Akkadian Taw(a)tu, ‘sea’, one form of the name Tiamat that occurs 
in the Enuma Elis. On this etymological connection, see West (1997) 147—8, 
especially 147, n.200. In a cosmogonic passage in the Iliad (14.200—204), Burkert 
(2004) 30 notes, “Hera says that she is going to Oceanus, ‘origin of the gods,’ and 
Tethys the ‘mother’; later on Oceanus is even called ‘the origin of all’.” This alter- 
native theogony, in which Oceanus and Tethys are the primeval couple, appears to 
resurface in an Orphic verse rehearsed by Plato ( Cratylus 402B); see Janko (1994) 
18 1, with additional bibliography. 

52 Foster (2005) 444, n. 1. 

53 For a possible surfacing of this Babylonian motif in Homeric epic, see West (1997) 

54 For other discussions of Babylonian parallels to Hesiod’s Theogony, again fundamen- 
tally sympathetic to the present treatment, see, inter alia, Littleton (1970) 109—15; 
Walcot (1966) 27-54; West (1997) 280-3, (1966) 22-4. 

55 For the text of the myth, see, inter alia, Foster (2005) 489—91; ANET (Grayson), 
pp. 517—18; Lambert and Walcot (1965). 

56 For further discussion of the Dunnu theogony, see Littleton (1970) 112— 14; Lam- 
bert and Walcot (1965); Walcot (1966) 41—2. 

57 The name appears to be actual Phoenician — Sakkunyaton, meaning ‘the god 
Sakkun gave’; see West (1994) 294, n. 20, with additional references. 

58 Philo’s text is known chiefly through the work of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, 
the fourth-century Christian apologist and historian. The text used herein is that 
of Jacoby, Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker (FGrH), reprinted in Baumgarten 
(1981), in which work an English translation with commentary can also be found. 

59 For discussion of these lines and their intended meaning, see, inter alia, Baumgarten 
(1981) 68—74, 77 — 82. Philo’s reference may be to the script of the Ammonites, a 
Canaanite people closely related to the Hebrews and Phoenicians, and especially 
to the Edomites and Moabites. 

60 For discussion of the term, see Baumgarten (1981) 183—5. 


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61 On the three, see, inter alia, Baumgarten (1981) 189—90, 202—3. El and Dagon are 
well-known deities among various West Semitic peoples (of whom the Phoeni- 
cians are one); Baitylos is otherwise attested through several sources, including a 
Phoenician treaty. 

62 For a summary of the evidence, see Baumgarten (1981) 195—7. 

63 On the reading “or Hadad” see Baumgarten (1981) 196, 215, 219. 

6 4 For bibliography, see West (1994) 294. 

65 See Baumgarten (1981) passim, but especially pp. 261—7. 

66 For discussion of additional similarities, see West (1997) 285—6. 

67 Other Indo-European cultures do know a form of the myth: notably, that version 
found in the Persian Shah-nameh (‘Book of Kings’), written by the poet FerdowsT 
(Abu Ol-Qasem Mansur) in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD, and that of the 
Prose Edda, a work by the twelfth-century Icelander, Snorri Sturluson. Both are 
most likely borrowed. On the kingship -in-heaven tradition and its occurrence in 
Indo-European works, see Littleton (1970). See also Allen (2004) and comments 
in n. 24 above. 

68 Prior to the acquisition of the Phoenician script, the Greeks had written with the 
syllabic script called Linear B during the mid- to late second millennium BC, and 
Cypriot Greeks continued to use a related syllabic writing system well into the 
alphabetic period; see Woodard (1997) passim. 

69 See Woodard (1997) 133-62. 

70 On which, see, inter alia, Karageorghis (2002); Walz (1997); Reyes (1994). 

71 West (1994) argues that it is a Phoenician cosmogony that underlies not only 
variously reported Greek cosmogonic traditions but the cosmogonic doctrines of 
early Ionian philosophers as well. 

72 West (1978) 151; Gagarin (1986) 107—9. For a recent examination of Hesiod s 
depiction of the kings with references to earlier work, see Edwards (2004) 64—73 • 

73 Gagarin (1986) 46—9; see also Nagy (1990b) 64. 

74 “The problem is not only that the princes are arbitrary, arrogant, or care- 
less. . . . Rather, Hesiods charge of gift swallowing implies that they have delib- 
erately chosen to deviate from known standards of fair and equitable judgment 
for one of two reasons: Either because of an illegitimate acceptance of gifts (qua 
bribes) from some interested party or because they accept the gifts traditionally 
offered to judges by disputants without rendering straight judgment in return”; 
Ober (2005) 399. 

75 For further interpretative specifics, see Gagarin (1974), with references to earlier 
work. See also Clay (2003) 34—7. 

76 The translation is adapted from Woodard, in press. 

77 Hesiod devotes 17 lines to the gold race, 16 to the silver, 13 to the bronze, and 28 
to the iron. 

78 On which see West (1978) 203. 

79 Nemesis is the deification of anger at things unjust; Aidos, respect for another. 

80 Nagy (1990b) 66 makes it clear: 

The ‘moral’ of the fable about the hawk and the nightingale hereby becomes 
exphcit: the hawk/king who threatens to devour the nightingale/poet as proof of 
his power is utterly disqualified as an exponent of dike ‘justice’. Moreover, since 
only those kings who ar e phroneontes ‘aware’ will understand the fable (202; cf. the 
idealized kings at Theogony 88, who are ekephrones ‘aware’), the greedy kings are 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

implicitly disqualified even from understanding the ‘moral,’ in view of their general 
ignorance (see Works and Days 40—41). And if the kings cannot be exponents of 
dike, they are utterly without authority and their raison d’etre is annihilated. In 
fact, after verse 263 , the kings are never heard of again in the Works and Days. 

81 West (1997) 319—20, (1978) 204; Perry (1965) xxviii— xxxiv. For a general discussion 
of the Greek fable within a context of Near Eastern influence, see Burkert (1992) 
120— 124. 

82 Perry (1965) xxxiii. Perry summarizes the Babylonian fable on pp. xxxii— xxxiii; 
for the Greek equivalent, which has substituted a bull for the elephant, see Perry 
p. 103. 

83 Ebeling (1927) 50. 

84 Walcot (1966) 90 

85 ETCSL translation: t. 6. 1.08 ( 


86 The fable is itself akin to the Sumerian debate texts — texts pitting animals, plants, 
elements, and so forth against one another — such as the The Debate between Bird 
and Fish. See Black et al. (2004) 225—40 for discussion of the debate genre and the 
similarity between the heron-and-turtle fable and debate texts. 

87 The translation is that of Black et al. (2004) 238. 

88 West (1978) 3-22. 

89 Chadwick and Chadwick (1986). 

90 West (1978) 28. 

91 The translation is that of Black et al. (2004) 285. 

92 The proper placement and construal of this line is a matter of scholarly 
disagreement; see West (1978) 329—30. 

93 Samas is the Akkadian sun-god. 

94 The translation is that of Foster (2005) 412—13. 

95 The translation of the Biblical text here and throughout this work is that of the 
New English Bible. 

96 For a summary of the history of Egyptian wisdom literature, see Ray (1995). 

97 On the Instructions of Amen-em-Opet and affiliations with Hesiod and the book 
of Proverbs, see Walcot (1966) 86—7; West (1997) 94; Eissfeldt (1965) 474—5. 
John A. Wilson (ANET, p. 421) observes: “Amem-em-Opet differs from earlier 
Egyptian books of wisdom in its humbler, more resigned, and less materialistic 
outlook.” Some scholars have argued that Amem-em-Opet was itself influenced 
by the Hebrew proverbs, though this seems currently to be a view not widely held; 
see, however, the observations of Ray (1995) 24. 

98 That is, a person who is mentally disabled. 

99 That is, persons who would harm the one being addressed. 

100 The translation is that appearing in ANET (Wilson), p. 424. 

101 On the possible influence of Hesiod on Ankhsheshonqy, see Walcot 1966 (88) with 
reference to his earlier work on the problem. On other influential elements — 
Greek and Aramaic — see Ray (1995) 26. 

102 On the Wisdom of Ahiqar see Harris et al. (1913); Lindenberger (1983); Greenfield 
( I 995 )- Referring to the comparative study of Lichteim (1983), Greenfield (1995) 
50 notes, “It is with the Syriac and Armenian versions that the important Demotic 
wisdom collection called ‘The Instruction of Ankhsheshonqy’ has definite 


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103 West (1978) 28. 

104 West (1978) 174. 

105 West (1978) 174. 

106 For an English translation of the Pahlavi texts discussed here, see West (1995) 
1:191—235; 4:180—81. 

107 The account of seven ages also survives in a Persian poem of the thirteenth century 
AD, the Zardust-nameh. For the poem see Rosenberg 1904. 

108 For discussion of variant forms of this millennial chronology, see West (1995) 
i:xlvi— lv; Boyce (1996) 285—293. 

109 Sanskrit dharma, which I choose to leave untranslated, is a semantically multifaceted 
notion, at the heart of which is ‘order’. In the Introduction to their translation 
of the Sanskrit Laws of Mann (the Manavadharmasastra; on which, see below) — 
a work fundamentally concerned with the maintenance of dharma in a world in 
which chaos always threatens — Doniger and Smith (1991) xvii write of this text: 
“It is about dharma, which subsumes the English concepts of ‘religion’, ‘duty’, 
‘law’, ‘right’, ‘justice’, ‘practice’, and ‘principle’.” 

no The graying of humans receives explicit mention in Markandeya’s first list of the 
symptoms of the kaliyuga in 3.186; there boys are said to father offspring when 10 
or 12, and girls conceive at 7 or 8. In 3 .188 the corresponding ages are given as 7 
or 8 and 5 or 6. 

in West (1997) 314; West (1978) 176, in which he writes: “The antediluvian kings 
reign for periods ranging from 10,800 to 72,000 years, and the great destruction of 
the Flood marks this off as a distinct historical age. The kings of the first dynasties 
after the Flood have much shorter reigns, but still of up to 1,200 years.” 

112 Koenen (1994) 14—18 seeks to show a similarity between Hesiod’s prophetic lan- 
guage and certain Egyptian prophetic texts, as well as Mesopotamian, but points 
out that “in the early Near Eastern cultures, however, we have found no trace of 
four ages named after metals” (p. 24). He believes, however, that Egypt and the 
Near East provided both the Greeks and the Iranians with the idea of cyclic time, 
as well as an apocalyptic tradition, passed along to India (see especially pp. 12—14, 
34). Koenen seems to stand alone in this imagined course of transmission, as he 
acknowledges (see p. 13, with nn. 26 and 28). No such influence needs to be 
posited; a primitive Indo-European concept of temporal cyclicity appears virtually 
certain, as revealed by comparative analysis of Celtic and Indo-Iranian traditions; 
see, in this regard, the comments of Lincoln (1986) 217, n. 24. 

Some investigators, such as Koenen, have expressed concern over the “late” 
date of the Zoroastrian documents. The date is not a problem as far as the com- 
parative value of the Iranian materials is concerned. The comparative method, in its 
application to both Indo-European linguistic and sociocultural data, is a power- 
ful methodology, able to pierce deep into Indo-European antiquity from much 
shallower and variegated chronological levels (see my remarks in Woodard [2006] 
32—5). The Sanskrit language, for example, though not attested in writing until c. 
mid-second century AD, shows many close linguistic similarities to Bronze-Age 
Greek and is a cornerstone in the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European lan- 
guage of the fifth millennium BC. As Dumezil (1995) 95—101 , following Wikander 
(1947), demonstrated, certain primitive Indo-European elements find expression 
in the epic Mahabharata that are not attested in the much-earlier-composed Vedas. 


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It may also be instructive to recall that the earliest extant manuscript of Works and 
Days is of medieval date (see West [1978] 75—86). 

1 13 Dumezil (1987) 165. 

114 Dumezil (1973) 37. 

115 See especially Nagy (1990b) passim; Watkins (1995) passim. 

116 Consider, for example, the Homeric traditions of the “Judgment of Paris” (see 
Dumezil [1995] 608—14) and the figure of Heracles as a “triple-sinning warrior” 
(see Dumezil [1983; 1970]). Several of Dumezil s later “100 essays” (published 
collectively as Dumezil [2003]) treat Greek topics — particularly several of the 
initial twenty-five that appeared in 1982 under the title Apollon sonore. Among the 
work ofDumezil’s disciples, consider, inter alia, Yoshida’s (1964) study of the shield 
of Heracles. 

117 The work appears most recently in the 2006 republication of Vernant’s Myth and 
Thought among the Greeks by Zone Books. Compare Vernant’s further thoughts on 
a structural analysis of Hesiod in chapters two and three of that volume. 

118 For discussion, see Woodard (2006) especially pages 14—20; there I write: 

... as early as 1932, the French linguist Emile Benveniste had begun independently 
to explore and develop his own interpretation of Indo-European social classes. 

The most succinct expression of Benveniste s conclusions is to found in his mas- 
terful work treating primitive Indo-European economy, society, law and religion, 

Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-europeennes (1969); therein (as earlier) Benveniste 
argues for a similar hierarchically-ordered, three-part social structure. . . . The struc- 
ture is most readily perceived among the Indo-Iranian peoples, and indeed, in the 
research path followed by both Benveniste and Dumezil the reconstruction of an 
ancestral structure was first projected to Proto-Indo-Iranian society (see Benveniste 
1932; Dumezil 1930). 

119 On binary opposition generally in early Greek poetry, see the remarks of Nagy in 
Chapter 1 of the present volume. 

120 See, inter alia, McKay (1963); cf. the remarks of West (1978) 236—7. At Works and 
Days 498—501 the poet suggests a contrast between an empty or bad hope ( elpis 
[eAttis]) and a more positive one. 

121 Clay (2003) 123. And consider also Berg (1976) 19, who observes: “Similarly, the 
woman of the Erga- myth is called Pandora, ‘All-giving’, though Hesiod is quick 
to turn the etymology around and insist that it means ‘Gifted by All (the Gods)’ 

122 See, inter alia , Marquardt (1982) 285—7; West (1978) 165-6. 

123 Clay (2003) 12 1. 

124 Clay (1993) 108. The tradition of the shared eye and tooth is first attested by 
Pherecydes (West [1966] 245), an historian of the fifth century BC whose work 
survives only in fragments; for his Graeae text, see Fowler (2000) 280, line 15 — 
281, line 3. 

125 Clay (1993) 116. 

126 Clay (1993) 115. 

127 Thus, see Berg (1976), especially 17—19. 

128 Lines 124—5, in which the daimones are described, are identical to lines 254—5, 
lines that describe the actions of Zeus’s invisible spies. Some scholars, such as West 
(1978) 183, propose that the earlier lines (124—5) were copied from the latter by 


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a post-Hesiodic hand. Vernant (1983a) 10— 11 suggests that there is an intentional 
link between the golden age daimones and the spies of the divine sovereign Zeus. 

129 Vernant (1983a) 11. 

130 Vernant (1983a) 12. He also argues (p. 16) for extending the parallelism by compar- 
ing Hesiod’s bronze age to the race of giants born from Gaea — whom Apollodorus 
describes as going to war against Olympus. 

131 Vernant (1983a) 7. 

132 Vernant (1983a) 12. 

133 Vernant (1983a) 16. 

134 Vernant (1983a) 16. 

135 Vernant (1983a) 17. 

136 See, for example, Dumezil (1992)176—7. 

137 Vernant (1983a) 9. 

138 Vernant (1983a) 19. 

139 Vernant (1983a) 20. 

140 Vernant (1983a) 23 concludes: “This is where Hesiod’s profound originality lies 
and this is what makes him a true religious reformer, comparable in manner and 
inspiration to certain prophets of Judaism.” 

141 For discussion of the Babylonian Exile and its aftermath, see, inter alia , Mitchell 
( 1991 ). 

142 It is reminiscent of both the story of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel in Chapter Two, 
in which Daniel interprets the dream of the giant with head of gold and feet of 
clay, and the story of Chapter Four, in which Daniel interprets yet another of 
Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams (in which he saw a great tree), after which the king is 
driven into the wilderness and goes mad, but after seven years is healed as he calls 
upon the God of the Jews. See the discussions in Salvesen (1998) 149; Mitchell 
(1991) 417—18, 425—6; Ackroyd (1968) 36—8. 

143 Oppenheim (1977) 150. 

144 See ANET (Oppenheim), p. 562. 

145 On Nabonidus, see Wiseman (1991) 243—51. On his relationship with Cyrus, his 
Persian deposer, see also Mallowan (1985) 408—15. 

146 See ANET (Oppenheim), p. 562. 

147 Mitchell (1991) 425—26. 

148 Though Herodotus and Xenephon present the Persian takeover as involving greater 
bloodshed than do the Mesopotamian sources. 

149 Mallowan (1985) 408—9. 

150 Dandamaev (1991) 256, who continues, “It can be noted incidentally that a letter 
of the early sixth century BC mentions the arrest of several Babylonians whose 
father and brother had fled to Media. As can be seen from the same letter, several 
other Babylonians had fled to Media, and the king’s order for them to return 
remained unanswered.” 

151 See Wiseman (1991) 248-9; see also Mallowan (1985) 411— 12. 

152 Mitchell (1991) 430, 436—7; Mallowan (1985) 409, 411— 12. 

153 On the various dialects and historical stages of Aramaic, see Creason (2004) 391—3 . 

154 Montgomery (1979) 20—22. 

155 Mitchell (1991) 427; Kutscher (1970) 399—403. 

156 Davies (1976) 399. 

157 See Russell (1964) 19 and passim. 


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158 Montgomery (1979) 186. 

159 The differences extend to at least the early twentieth century; see the discussion 
in Montgomery (1979) 188—9. 

160 As in, for example, Hartman and Di Leila (1978) 146. 

161 See, inter alia, Clackson (2004) 922; Burrow (1955) 15—16. 

162 Republished in Heitsch (1966); see pp. 457—8. 

163 Sanskrit visvavedas (‘all-knowing’) is also used of Dyaus, the Indie deity cognate 
with Greek Zeus; see West (1978) 223—4 f° r the comparison and for a discussion 
of the Sun and its relationship to all-seeing Zeus in Greece and to Indie Mitra 
and Varuna, and to Iranian Ahura Mazdah: “Hesiods Zeus with his spies and 
his all-seeing Eye, and Homers Sun [‘who sees all things and hears all things’] 
(Iliad 3.277, invoked together with Zeus in swearing an oath. . .) are evidently 
fragmented survivals of this Indo-European system.” 

164 West (1978) 219. Added to this cluster of shared Greek and Indo-Iranian features 
appearing within this delimited portion of Works and Days is Hesiod’s use of 
okupetes (cokutt£TT| 5) ‘swiftly flying’ to describe the hawk of his fable; Homer 
uses the adjective only of horses, “but the etymological equivalent asupatva is 
applied to a hawk in Rig Veda 4.26.4. ...” (West [1978] 209). Also worth noting is 
what Herodotus (1.132) reports about Persian sacrificial practice: when a sacrificial 
victim has been dismembered and its flesh cooked, the various portions are placed 
on top of grass that has been scattered in the sacrificial space, whereupon a Magus 
approaches and chants a theogony. 

165 On Zoroastrian dualism, see, inter alia, Boyce (1996) 192—3, 198—200. 

166 By “cognate” I mean that Avestan asa : Sanskrit rta and Avestan drug : Sanskrit druh 
each have a common origin in the parent Proto-Indo-Iranian language. 

167 On the Indo-European cosmogony see, inter alia, Mallory and Adams (1997) 129— 
30; Lincoln (1986). 

168 For further elaboration, see Lincoln (1986), especially chapters 1,2, and 7. 

169 For the Pahlavi text, see West (1995) 3:118—119. 

170 Pahlavi vastryosih, from the Avestan compound vastryo Jsuyant. 

171 Benveniste (1969) 1:279, 288. 

172 On the Skend Gumamg Vizar and other Iranian variants, see Lincoln (1986) 146— 
148. Of especial relevance are traditions concerning Iranian Yima (which cannot 
be discussed here), the first king, whose name is cognate with that of Norse Ymir; 
on Yima, see also Lincoln (1997). 

173 For the text, see West (1995) 3:118. 

174 See Fontenrose (1974) 3-5. 

175 Fontenrose (1974) 4. West (1978) would disagree, stating that “Hesiod was the 
sole source for later Greek and Roman writers” (p. 177). But consequent to this 
position, he must append the claim that Hesiod’s “attempt to historicize [the myth] 
by incorporating the Heroic Age was abandoned in favour of the strictly regular 
mythical scheme.” If Hesiod were the only source for later Greek and Roman 
writers, how would they have known that his version was one that had been 
altered and historicized by the inserting of the age of heroes (and have universally 
deleted the same)? It is a cumbersome hypothesis — made much more so by the 
particular similarity of Ovid’s account to the Indo-Iranian traditions — and one that 
this learned scholar seems to have moved away from in West (1997), where he 
writes, “We may note in passing certain features which appear here and there in 


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later Greek and Roman accounts of the Golden Age, though not in Hesiod, and 
which have Near Eastern parallels” (p. 314). 

Ovid offers an account of the Gigantomachy, placing it immediately after his 
report of the iron age. Within the context of the myth of world ages, his description 
of the giants and the aftermath of their defeat seems teasingly familiar in light of 
the Indo-European cosmogony encountered above, with its cosmic giant whose 
dismembered body gave rise to the cosmos and the classes of human society Ovid’s 
giants have serpent feet and a hundred hands (Metamorphoses 1.183—4); when they 
are vanquished by Zeus, the primeval earth-goddess, Terra, creates from the bloody 
carnage a race of living beings of human form (156— 62). Purusa, the butchered 
cosmic giant of Indie tradition, is described as having a thousand heads, a thousand 
eyes, and a thousand feet (Rig Veda 10.90. 1). More overt in this connection is 
Ovid’s unique account of how the giant Atlas was transformed into a mountain 
(Metamorphoses 4.655— 62); see Lincoln (1986) 10. 

176 For the text of Aratus’ myth, see Kidd (1997) 78—83, with associated commentary. 

177 Among other versions of the myth mentioned by Fontenrose (1974) are those of 
the Roman poets Horace (Epodes 16.41— 66) and Juvenal (6.1—24). Horace makes 
oblique reference to the golden, bronze, and iron ages in verses extolling the glories 
of the Elysian Isles. Juvenal begins his sixth satire by rehearsing the nature of life in a 
bygone day, presumably the golden age, and concluding this passage with explicit, 
if brief, reference to the silver and iron ages. It was in the silver age, writes Juvenal 
(line 24), that adultery first appeared (all other sins appearing in the iron age; line 
23). The remark is intriguing if the poet should prove to be preserving some more 
ancient tradition, given the Indo-Iranian affiliation of the second age with the 
second stratum of society, the warrior class. Dumezil identified a prominent Indo- 
European mythic figure that he called the triple-sinning warrior — the warrior 
who sins against each of the three canonical elements of Indo-European society. 
The warrior’s sin in the realm of the goods-producers (Dumezil’s third function) 
commonly entails an adulterous act; see, inter alia, Dumezil 1970 and 1983. 

178 The Indie use of white, red, yellow, and black to identify the sequential yugas is 
not simply a matter of the ages being represented by “metallic colors,” as some 
investigators have supposed (see, for example, Koenen [1994J 13). The use of color 
(varna) to symbolize the social classes is a Common Indo-Iranian phenomenon 
and one that has its roots in an earlier and more broadly attested Indo-European 
practice; see Dumezil (1992) 104—6, with references to earlier work. 

179 Blakely (2007) 26, with extensive bibliography. 

180 Blakely (2007) 27, n. 71 writes: “All meteors have some iron content, ranging from 
the siderites, which are 100% iron and nickel, to stony-iron siderolites, which are 
50% iron and 50% silicate, and stony (aerolites), which are 10—15% iron and nickel, 
mixed with 85—90% silicates. Only one in ten meteors is a siderite. ...” 

181 As also in the Zardust-nameh (see n. 107 above). Boyce (1984) 71 interprets the 
phrase as a reference to iron still mixed with dross. She sees in the term an allusion to 
the mixture of good and evil in the fourth age — perhaps a necessary interpretation a 
la Hesiod, one could imagine, given her view that the Iranian world-ages tradition 
was acquired from the Greeks (pp. 70, 72). Boyce herself, however — inaccurately 
typifying the Greek final age as only “a fourth age of simple iron, which was 
in fact a prized and handsome metal” (p. 72) — views the “mixed” status from a 
Zoroastrian perspective: “for dualist Zoroastrians the concept of a mixture of good 


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Hesiod and Greek Myth 

and evil is an ever-present one, indeed the whole of this existence is characterized 
in their holy texts as the time of ‘mixture’ (gumezisn ), ...” (p. 72). As we have 
already noted and will soon consider again, Hesiod also describes an iron age that 
is “mixed.” 

West (1978) 198. Though West does not advocate excising the lines from the text, 
as certain others before him had, but sagely advises: “We had better take the text 
as it stands, and try to understand how Hesiod came to write it so.” 

West (1978) 198: “It was a tenet of popular wisdom that human life is either a 
mixture of good and bad or wholly bad.” See also West (1966) 334. 

Heubeck and Hoekstra (1989) 262. Compare Helens words at Odyssey 4.236—7: 
“But now to one and now to another, Zeus gives both good and ill.” 

“The language of the whole passage is untypical,” writes Richardson (1993) 331. 
The translation is that of Foster (2005) 395. 

The translation is that of Foster (2005) 397. 

The translation is that of Foster (2005) 399. 

On the dating of Theogonis see West (1993) xiv and, especially, West (1974) 65— 
71. For additional points of agreement between Hesiod and Theognis see Nagy 


Also called Cyrnus; this is a young male to whom many of Theognis’ poems are 

Fontenrose (1974) 1, n. 1 writes, for example: 

“Age” is, I grant, a not wholly satisfactory translation of genos, which means “stock” 
or “breed” in this text; but these words will hardly do for translation or discussion 
(can we talk about Hesiod’s “golden stock”?); and “race” must be rejected altogether 
as both misleading and inaccurate. “Generation” is one meaning of genos, but 
is surely unsuitable for the myth, since each genos obviously consisted of several 
generations in the ususal sense of the term. 

Similarly, Koenen (1994) 2, n. 3 observes: 

In the following pages I shall try to avoid the term “races” because of the restrictive 
sense in which the term is used in our vernacular. But “age,” the word I shall use, 
is not precisely what Hesiod had in mind. He does not talk about the creation of 
periods of time, but about the human beings who lived in specific periods of their 

192 Gerber (1999) 201; West (1993) 68. 

193 Wender (1973) 103. 

194 Fowler (1992) 95. 

195 Mulroy (1992) 173. 

196 On genos and its position within the structure of Indo-European society, see espe- 
cially Benveniste (1969) 1:257-8, 314—16. 

197 I have, of course, in the present treatment completely skirted the issue of a possible 
fourth Indo-European class, i.e., in Dumezilian terms, a “fourth function,” on 
which see, inter alia, Allen (1996, 1987). Allen argues for a fourth function that is 
characterized by “two aspects, one positive or transcendent (F4 +), one negative 
and excluded (F4 -)” (Allen [2000] 279). Thus, in a certain sense, Allen’s fourth 
function can be characterized as mixed, and in this regard his analysis may well have 
relevance to the fourth, mixed age of Indo-Iranian and Greek tradition. Particularly 
germane to the topic at hand is his treatment of an Iranian (pre-Islamic Afghan) 












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catastrophe tradition in Allen (2000), in which work he makes reference to the 
Hesiodic scheme of world ages, though his chief concern is with flood traditions. 

198 The word here (line 144) translated ‘same’ is Greek homoios (opotos). In line 
182 — “A father his children will not resemble, nor children their father” — the 
word translated ‘resemble’ is homoiios (opouos), which Hesiod uses for the former 
word, homoios. As West (1978) 199 notes, according to the ancient scholia on 
Hesiod, the particular sense of homoiios is “‘at one with’, or ‘physically similar’ in 
consequence of marital fidelity” The intended nuance in line 182 is undoubtedly 
the latter, in light of the comparative and Greek-internal evidence adduced above. 
West, however, inclines toward the former — though he knows no parallel for 
that sense — because the subject of the first clause is “father” and he would have 
expected wording more like that of line 235, in which (among those people who 
practice justice) women are said to bear children like their parents. Given the Indo- 
European antiquity of the forms and notions being expressed in Hesiod’s prophetic 
description of iron-age social dissolution, the poet’s wording is not problematic. 
Primitive Indo-European society was patriarchal and patrilineal, with the father 
enjoying significant familial authority; see, inter alia, Benveniste (1969) 205—76. 
The Laws of Manu (3.12— 19) set out the unhappy consequences of a noble man 
marrying a low-born woman and fathering children by her. On the differences 
between Hesiod’s generations being “a matter of genetic debasement,” see Nagy 
(1985) §46; see also §43. 

199 Clay (2003) 16 1. 

200 Clay (1993) 1 16. 

201 Finley (2002) 90. 

202 Finley (2002) 93. 

203 Benveniste (1969) 1:341. 

204 Benveniste (1969) 1 1342. Benveniste further notes that philoxenos is “the only com- 
pound with philo- [in Homer] that has a second term applying to a person.” 

205 Finley (2002) 92. 

206 Benveniste (1969) 1:342; Finley (2002) 92. 

207 With regard to which, see, inter alia, Nagy (1996a) 133—4 (with references to earlier 
work): “When we are dealing with the traditional poetry of the Homeric (and 
Hesiodic) compositions, it is not justifiable to claim that a passage in any text 
can refer to another passage in another text. Such a restriction of approaches in 
Homeric (and Hesiodic) criticism is one of the most important lessons to be learned 
from the findings of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on the nature of traditional 
‘oral’ poetry. . . . There may theoretically be as many variations on a theme as there 
are compositions. Any theme is but a multiform (that is, a variant), and not one 
of the multiforms may be considered a functional ‘Urform.’” 

208 As in Iliad 1.179—80. On epic Greek hetairos, see, inter alia, Heubeck et al. (1988) 


209 West (1978) 200. 

210 See especially pages 104—8. 

211 Nagy (1999) 106. 

212 Nagy references Sinos (1975) 74 = Sinos 1980. 

213 West (1978) 334—5; Nagy (1990b) 70. Watkins (1995) 14 sees behind these passages 
“an apparent Indo-European tabu” concerning urinating while standing. For the 


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Manu passages, see the translations in Olivelle (2005) 126—7; Doniger and Smith 
(1991) 78-9. 

214 Nagy (1990b) 70. The Sylvain Levi quote is from Levi (1966) 121 . Nagy continues 
with observations concerning a “parallel thematic pattern in the Precepts of Cheiron,” 
for which see his pp. 70—71. 

215 “Enigmatic” to judge by some of its improbable interpretations. 

216 On which, see Nagy (1990b) 45; see also Nagy (1999) 229—33. On the ugliness 
of the pot-bellied Aesop, see Compton (2006) 20—21, with references to earlier 
works; on Comptons theme of the ugliness of the poet, see his p. 20, n. 12, with 
references to the development of this theme throughout the work. 

217 One is reminded of the Irish bard as a “third-function” figure within the first- 
function “learned class” (consisting of (1) druids, (2 )filid [or 1 sates], and (3) bards); 
see Rees and Rees (1989)140—41. On Cridenbel, the gluttonous poet of the Irish 
Tuatha De Danann, see Nagy (1999) 230—31. 

218 There are, for example, also temporal and calendrical elements involved (aside 
from the actual agricultural “calendar” of Works and Days), which we do not have 
the luxury of exploring in the present work. I treat these and other issues (some of 
which were introduced above) in greater detail in a monograph now in preparation: 
Hesiod: The Rupture of Time; The Restoration of Order. 


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4: Tragedy and Greek Mytei 
Richard Buxton 

T he theatre of Dionysus in fifth-century-BC Athens provided 
a unique context for myth-telling. 1 At the annual festival of 
the City Dionysia, myths were reembodied in performances 
by members of the citizen group. In these reembodiments, as heroes 
and divinities walked the stage, myths were not just narrated as past 
events: they were actualised as present happenings. Then and there, but 
also now and here; remote enough to allow room for pity, but close 
enough to inspire awe. 2 

In the present attempt to characterise tragic myths, I begin with a 
discussion (Section i) of an apparently simple question: What happens 
in Greek tragedies? In order to suggest an answer, I contrast tragedy with 
the nontragic mythological tradition, examining in particular the kinds 
of actions and sufferings ascribed to heroes and heroines. In Section 2 
I ask another seemingly straightforward question: Where are Greek 
tragedies imagined as taking place? My answer involves politics and 
psychology as well as topography and geography. Finally, in Section 3, 
I discuss ways in which tragedy represents the gods. Throughout the 
chapter, my aim is to ask how far it is possible to isolate features which 
are distinctively tragic. 3 

What Happens in Greek Tragedies? 

Across a wide range of Greek mythological narratives, in both texts and 
visual representations, the mighty heroes Heracles, Theseus, Agamem- 
non, and Oedipus are credited with formidable and triumphantly suc- 
cessful exploits. Heracles is the monster-slayer par excellence; Theseus, 
champion of idealised Athenian values, rids the world of unpleasant vil- 
lains and puts an end to the Minotaur; Agamemnon leads the expedition 


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which captures Troy, so justly avenging Paris’ abduction ofHelen; Oedi- 
pus destroys the oppressive power of the Sphinx. These same heroes 
appear, more specifically, in tragedies, including four which survive 
to the present day: Euripides’ The Madness of Heracles and Hippolytus; 
Aeschylus’ Agamemnon; Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannies. What is noticeable 
about the way in which these heroes are represented in tragedy is the 
kind of selection of mythical material which tragedy practises. When in 
Euripides’ play the peerless Heracles returns home after his culminating 
Labour (the seizing of the hell-hound Cerberus), he is struck by a frenzy 
sent upon him by Hera; while out of his senses he slaughters his wife and 
children and is only prevented from killing his father Amphitryon when 
Athena hurls a rock at him. In Hippolytus, Theseus witnesses the utter 
destruction of his family: when his son Hippolytus slights Aphrodite, 
the goddess’s punishment leads to the suicide of Theseus’ wife Phaedra 
and to the death of Hippolytus, intemperately cursed by his father in the 
false belief that the young man had raped Phaedra. In Agamemnon, Troy’s 
conqueror is humiliatingly stabbed to death in his bath by his vengeful 
and unfaithful wife Clytemnestra. In Oedipus Tyrannies, the saviour of 
Thebes becomes an abhorred outcast, revealed as the killer of his father 
and as the husband to whom his own mother bore four children. 

This pattern is typical. Greek tragedies do not narrate heroic 
exploits: instead, they explore the disruptions and dilemmas generated 
by such heroism, disruptions and dilemmas which almost invariably 
involve the catastrophic destruction of a household. Now of course 
tragedy is not the only genre to highlight the problematic aspects of 
heroism. We need only think of the Iliad, where heroic values are 
put under enormous strain by the conflict between Agamemnon and 
Achilles; where Achilles’ clear-eyed awareness of the brevity of his 
glory contrasts with the all-too-human, indeed ‘tragically’ limited vision 
which characterizes Hector; 4 and where one of the poem’s greatest 
affective climaxes, in which Priam ransoms from Achilles the body of 
his dead son Hector, precisely exemplifies the kind of emotional inten- 
sity later exploited in Attic tragedy. 5 Or we may think of the Odyssey, 
in which Odysseus’ slaying of the suitors is by no means morally unam- 
biguous (this is especially clear in Book 24, where the suitors’ grieving 
families step forward to exact vengeance for their murdered brothers 
and sons). Nevertheless, it is above all in tragedy that the underside of 
heroism becomes pervasive, not simply as a ‘theme,’ but as the predom- 
inant perspective from which mythical events are selected and depicted. 
It will be useful to illustrate this in more detail, by examining one myth, 
that of Jason and Medea, in three different versions. 


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In Pythian 4, the praise-poet Pindar honours Arcesilas of Cyrene, 
victor in the chariot-race at Delphi in 462 BC. The poem includes what 
is, for Pindar, an unusually extended account of a myth, namely Jasons 
quest for the Golden Fleece. In spite of its length, this account is not 
a detailed narration, but rather a spotlighting of significant moments. 
Given that Pindar is celebrating the return of a victorious athlete after 
a competitive triumph, the choice of the myth of the Argonauts makes 
perfect sense as a paradigm of success in the world of heroic adventure: 
Jason left home in search of glory, and returned having won it. 6 The 
Pindaricjason is formidable, handsome, and gentle of speech, even when 
he confronts Pelias, who has forcibly usurped sovereignty from Jasons 
‘rightfully ruling parents’ (no). Thanks to his trust in the god (232) and 
to Medea’s passionate assistance, Jason wins the Fleece, and is wreathed 
by his comrades like a victor in the Games (240). What of Medea? It 
is true that Aphrodite teaches Jason how to induce Medea to lose her 
shame for her parents and to desire a country — Hellas — which is not her 
own, so that she shall be burned and whirled by the lash of Persuasion 
(216-19). It is true, too, that her chaotic and disruptive emotions have 
been taken to exemplify her ‘disturbing ambiguity.’ 7 Nor can it be 
denied that at one point Medea is described as ‘the murder(ess) of 
Pelias’ (250), presumably an allusion to the later brutal episode in which 
she deceived Pelias’ daughters into butchering and boiling him, in an 
attempt to effect his rejuvenation. Nevertheless, although this allusion 
has been cited as evidence of Medea’s ‘infamous duplicity,’ 8 there is 
surely no implication that to be a murder(ess)-of-Pelias is necessarily a 
negative quality, since earlier in the poem Pelias has been portrayed as 
unlawfully and violently insolent ( athemin , biaios, hubrin [abspiv, (3iodcos, 
u(3piv] 109—12) . Moreover, about any possible future dissension between 
the Colchian princess and her Greek lover, Pindar is silent: Jason took 
her away secretly but sun autai (auv auTa), ‘with her acquiescence’ (250). 
To put the matter in broad and direct terms: in Pythian 4 the central 
function of the myth of the Argo is to shed lustre on the human victor 
Arcesilas by praising the mythical hero who stands as his exemplar. 9 

Argonautica, the great Hellenistic epic poem by Apollonius of 
Rhodes, narrates the tale of Jason and Medea in far richer detail than 
anything we find in Pindar; and in Apollonius it does indeed become 
imperative to recognise ambiguity. The portrayal of the two princi- 
pals is subtle and complex: for the bright light of Pindaric heroism 
Apollonius substitutes something far more troubling. Jason can only 
achieve his goal by relying on others: even though, before yoking the 


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fire -breathing Colchian bulls, he exults in the strength of his limbs like a 
proud warhorse (3 . 1259—62), he has by that stage already been sprinkled 
by Medea with potions which confer invulnerability. Not only is he far 
from self-reliant, but he also enters deeply worrying moral territory: his 
treacherous and religiously polluting murder of Medea’s brother Apsyr- 
tus overshadows the latter part of the epic, and partly determines the 
return course taken by the Argo, as Jason and Medea visit first Circe, 
and then Alcinous on Phaeacia, in a quest for purification. 10 

The differences between the Pindaric and the Apollonian Medeas 
are even greater than those between their Jasons. Compared to the near- 
evanescence of Medea in Pythian 4, the Medea of Apollonius is a strong 
and disturbing presence from the moment that she appears. When she 
abandons her home, she is torn apart by grief (4.34-40); she threatens 
Jason with the terrible consequences of his breaking of his oath to 
her, when it seems that he will negotiate with the pursuing Colchians 
(4.383—93). There is even a subtext which hints at the future rupture 
betweenjason and Medea, since the myth of Ariadne, mentioned several 
times (3.997-1004, 1096-1108; 4.430-34), cannot but recall Theseus’ 
abandoning of his foreign princess. Nevertheless, in spite of these darker 
characteristics ofjason and Medea, as the Argo sails into its home port 
of Pagasae at the end of the poem there is no mention of impending 
trouble. Indeed, about Medea’s future career, we have learned explicitly 
only two things. First, according to Hera’s plan, Medea will arrive in 
Iolcus as a kakon (kockov), ‘bane,’ to Pelias (3.1134-6). Second - so Hera 
assures Thetis — Medea will ultimately marry Achilles in the Elysian 
Fields (4.810— 16). 11 Whatever has gone before, the ending of the epic is 
serene, concluding as it does at the moment when the Argo itself bows 
out of the story: 

You sailed untroubled past the coast of Cecrops’ land, past 
Aulis inside Euboea, past the towns of the Opuntian Locri- 
ans, and joyfully you stepped ashore at Pagasae. 


Chronologically intermediate between the Pindaric and the Apol- 
lonian narratives is Euripides’ tragedy. As might be expected from a 
story incorporating so many episodes of violent conflict, the myth of 
Medea was a favourite with the Greek tragedians; 12 but the only play 
on this theme to survive to the present day is the Euripidean mas- 
terpiece. Within the world of this play, the expedition of the Argo is 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

just a memory; equally remote is the recollected love between Jason 
and Medea. From the perspective of the tragedy’s Corinthian setting, 
Colchis and Iolcus lie in the past; Athens, Medea’s eventual refuge, lies 
in the future. Concentrated into the transitional Corinthian present is 
an episode of horrifying cruelty, which encompasses the destruction of 
two families. 

Jason has decided to put Medea aside in favour of a new bride, 
the daughter of the Corinthian king Creon. When Medea cunningly 
obtains from a nervous and reluctant Creon the permission to remain 
for just one more day before leaving Corinth, she seizes the opportunity 
to inflict a ghastly vengeance on her former lover and his prospective 
second family. As wedding presents to Jason’s new bride, Medea sends 
a lovely gown and coronet, conveyed by her own little sons to make 
the gifts more persuasively welcome. But the gifts turn out to contain 
a fiery, flesh-eating poison, which causes the excruciating deaths of the 
girl and her father. A Newsbringer 13 recounts the final stages of the 

Overcome by disaster, she fell to the ground; 

Except to her father, she was indeed hard to recognise; 

The form of her eyes was not clear, and her face was disfigured; 
Blood mingled with flame dripped down from her head; her 

Eaten away by the invisible jaws of poison, flowed away 
From the bones, like drops of pine resin — 

A terrible sight. Everyone was afraid to touch 

Her corpse. We had learned the lesson from what had happened. 

(Med. 1195-1203) 

Going beyond even these horrors, Medea then kills her own two young 
sons - acting not as a monstrous psychopath, but as a mother torn apart 
by conflicting drives. At first she had found the thought of infanticide 
hideous beyond imagining: 

What am I to do? My courage has gone, 

Women, when I saw the bright eyes of my children, 

I could not do it. Farewell to the plans 
I had before. I’ll take my children from this land. 

Why should I cause harm to my children in order to make 
Their father suffer, when I shall suffer twice as much myself? 



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But finally, overcome by the urge to punish the partner who has betrayed 
her, Medea convinces herself that she has no choice: 

Friends, the deed is decided: with all speed 
To kill the children and then leave Corinth; 

Not to delay, giving the children up to another 
More malevolent hand to murder them. 

At all events, they must die; and since they must, 

It is I who shall kill them, I who gave them birth. 

Arm yourself, my heart: why do I hesitate 

To perform wicked deeds that are terrible, yet inevitable? 


With the boys lying dead, it might seem that any possibility for still 
greater cruelty has been exhausted. Yet as a final refinement Medea 
conveys her sons’ corpses away from Corinth, in order to prevent Jason 
from embracing them in a last farewell. ‘You are not yet mourning,’ she 
chillingly informs Jason (1396): ‘Wait until you are old.’ 

In exploring the catastrophic underside of heroism, Euripides’ 
Medea exemplifies the inflection typically given by tragic playwrights 
to the mythical tradition. Tragedy is a world in which the tensions 
which ordinarily beset family life are unbearably intensified. In mar- 
riages, ancient and modern, husbands and wives quarrel and even fight: 
in tragedy, Clytemnestra goes further: she slaughters Agamemnon. In 
families, ancient and modern, children often face conflicts of loyalty 
towards their father and mother: in tragedy, Orestes goes further: he 
kills his mother because she killed his father. Tragedy is a crucible, a 
burning glass, an arena which displays events so terrible that one can 
hardly bear to contemplate them, yet so compelling that one cannot but 
watch to the end. 

Where Do Greek Tragedies Happen? 

We turn now to the location of tragic myths. The action of Greek 
tragedies is, I shall suggest, imagined as unfolding ‘in between.’ The 
Euripidean Medea may once more serve as our initial guide. 

Medea is in many senses an outsider. Not only is she a stranger to 
Corinth: this Colchian princess is a stranger to the Greek world alto- 
gether. At first she relies on Jason; later — for her escape plan — she relies 
on Aigeus. But throughout, her status is that of one who is ‘citiless’ ( apolis 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

[airoAis], 255, cf. 644). 14 This condition of exclusion applies, literally 
or metaphorically, to a large proportion of the protagonists in Greek 
tragedy. In Sophocles’ Philoctetes the eponymous hero, abandoned on 
the island of Lemnos, lacks all the comforts which would have brought 
his life closer to that of a civilised human being; only his magically 
unerring bow raises him above the level of a brute. (The desolation and 
isolation attributed to Lemnos in this play constitute another example of 
tragic ‘selection’: inhabited since prehistoric times, the real Lemnos was 
by no means devoid of human population.) Another Sophoclean work, 
Ajax, depicts a hero whose position at the very edge of the beached 
Greek ships ( Aj . 4) reflects his martial indomitability — the extremity of 
an army’s lines is one of its points of maximum vulnerability — but also 
symbolises other aspects of his marginality, including his madness and 
his attainment, albeit briefly, of a sublime linguistic register unparalleled 
elsewhere in the play; 15 eventually he commits the ultimate act of self- 
exclusion by falling on his sword. In these and many other tragedies, 
explorations of the moral and emotional implications of exclusion and 
marginality illustrate the genre’s predilection for ‘testing to destruction’ 
the concepts and categories of ordinary Greek life. 16 By dramatising 
the experiences of individuals driven out of their usual frameworks for 
living, tragedies depict actions which are simultaneously extreme and 
representative — just as the chorus of Oedipus Tyrannus can characterize 
the utterly extraordinary events surrounding Oedipus as a ‘paradigm’ of 
human existence (OT 1193). 

There are various ways in which tragic actions may unfold in the 
gaps between states. Sometimes these states are city-states, as in Sopho- 
cles’ Oedipus at Colonus, in which the plot concerns an outcast wander- 
ing in the no-man’s-land between Thebes and Athens. Will hospitable 
Athens agree to admit a wanderer with a horrific past? Will Creon 
and Polynices, with their threats and persuasion, draw Oedipus back to 
Thebes? At the end Oedipus mysteriously crosses an even more danger- 
ous, because sacred, boundary, that between life and death, eventually 
to occupy a post mortem position between the two poles - as a dead 
hero with the power to affect the living. 

A similar sense of the precarious balance between states typically 
underlies works which turn on the acceptance or rejection of a ritual 
supplication. Central to Aeschylus’ Suppliant Maidens is the dilemma 
faced by the Argive ruler Pelasgus, obliged to decide whether to accept 
a group of refugees in a crisis where such acceptance will entail the 
dangerous enmity of those angrily pursuing them. The asylum-seekers 
in question are the daughters of Danaus, desperate to avoid being forced 


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into marriage with their cousins, the sons of Aegyptus. To intensify 
Pelasgus’ dilemma still further, the Danaids threaten to commit suicide 
upon the city’s holy shrines. As Pelasgus expresses it to the chorus of 
Danaid maidens: 

Yes, I see difficulties everywhere, hard to wrestle with; 

A surge of troubles overwhelms me like a river. 

I have entered upon a sea of ruin, bottomless and dangerous, 
With nowhere a harbour to escape from misfortune. 

If I do not fulfil this duty to help you, 

You threatened us with pollution unsurpassed; 

But if I stand against your cousins, Aegyptus’ sons, 

Before our walls and fight the matter out, 

Is the cost not a bitter one, that men 

Should soak the earth in blood for women’s sake? 

Yet I must fear the wrath of Zeus, the suppliants’ god: 

For mortals that is the supreme fear. 

(. Supp . 468-79) 

The boundary between one community and another is a place of ten- 
sion, and potentially a powerful generator of dramatic meaning. 17 

The gaps between states explored in Euripides’ Trojan Women are at 
once political and more than political. The action is suspended between 
Troy and Greece, but also between past and present and, for the Tro- 
jan women themselves, between one male and another. The surviving 
women of Troy find themselves in a city whose past already lies in 
smouldering ruins, and whose future will consist of a slave existence 
across the sea in Greece. Cassandra will be transferred from the service 
of Apollo to the bed of Agamemnon; it is proposed that Hecuba and 
Andromache shall serve Odysseus and Neoptolemus. The Trojan men, 
it is true, died good deaths, achieving ‘the most beautiful glory’ by dying 
for their country ( Tro . 386—7). But dead they are: the only living Trojan 
male to appear in the play is young Astyanax, a silent victim soon to be 
hurled to his death from the city walls. In so far as a polis is defined by 
the presence of its male citizens, Troy is a polis no longer; rather, it is an 
empty space, abandoned even by Poseidon and Athena, who had ended 
their prologue by walking away. The minimal scope for the expression 
of personal preference which had momentarily opened up earlier on 
(‘I would rather go to the famed and blessed land of Theseus’ - i.e., 
Athens - the chorus had observed (207)) has given way by the end to 
ineluctable trek toward the Greek ships. 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

Yet another boundary explored in tragedy is the problematic inter- 
face between ‘Greek’ and ‘Barbarian.’ Medea again provides a reference 
point. In the face of Medea’s accusations about broken vows, Jason 
retorts that moving to Greece has introduced her to a society which 
respects justice and the rule of law (Med. 536-8). Yet, notwithstanding 
the ‘barbaric’ cruelty of Medea’s revenge, Jason’s breaking of his vows 
to her hardly allows such a dichotomy to stand unchallenged: there is 
heartlessness on either side of the division between Greek and non- 
Greek. An equivalent overlap between these two categories pervades 
Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, whose subtitle might be ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ 
The play evokes a series of characters who travel, or who once travelled, 
from Argos to Troy or vice versa, and one of the questions implicitly 
raised in the play is this: Will the generalisations which applied in Troy 
(for example: that the gods punish mortals who are impious) apply also 
in Argos? When Agamemnon is persuaded by Clytemnestra to perform 
the symbolically tremendous gesture of trampling on rich fabric as he 
reenters his palace, he admits that this is exactly what Priam would 
have done ( Ag . 935—6) — another example of the characteristically tragic 
collapsing of boundaries. 

In several other plays an analogous to-ing and fro-ing takes place; 
but in these cases the opposed locations are features of the landscape 
rather than different communities. More often than not, the skene (stage 
building), in front of which tragedies were played out, was designed 
to represent part of the built environment such as a house or palace, 
which in turn usually belonged within a polish Yet it often happens 
that significant action takes place in the off-stage space imagined to 
He beyond the skene - typically in a mountain region adjacent to and 
contrasting with the world of human habitation. The reciprocal rela- 
tionship between mountain and city constitutes yet one more per- 
mutation of the interstitial status of tragic action, since the action of 
many tragedies oscillates between an ostensibly civilised household/city 
and the sacred wildness of a mountain. The most obvious example is 
the role of Mount Cithaeron in myths based in the city of Thebes. 19 
In both Oedipus Tyrannus and Bacchae, this mountain is where human 
beings come unusually and dangerously close to the sacred. For Oedi- 
pus, this proximity is strange and eerie: Cithaeron is where he was left 
to die and then miraculously saved. For the mortals swept up in the 
arrival of Dionysus in Greece, Cithaeron has a more sharply defined 
role: it is where the women go in search of Dionysus, abandoning 
their proper domestic role in a civilised community. By the end of the 
play, the mountain has become a place of nightmarish carnage, and 


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yet the religious experiences which take place there are, at least when 
properly channelled through ritual, an integral part of the world of 

‘Spaces between’ are found not only in the physical world, but also 
in the mind. Several tragedies are shaped by the interplay of sanity and 
madness, though there are marked variations, from play to play, about 
what constitutes being out of one’s ‘right’ mind, and what the causes 
and effects of such a condition might be. For Io in Prometheus Bound 
(attributed to Aeschylus), the distortion of her mind is provoked by the 
jealousy of Hera, whose agent is a fly which stings unremittingly. Being 
driven out of her senses is for Io analogous to other disastrous upheavals 
which she endures, namely metamorphosis from human to cow, and 
exile from her homeland as she wanders from continent to continent. 
Throughout all this, Io is a victim: she suffers but does not act. To 
some extent comparable is the madness of Cassandra in Agamemnon : 
she too has become a victim, having lost credibility as a prophetess after 
refusing to satisfy Apollo’s lust. Io and Cassandra have in common the 
linguistic turmoil which the playwright lends to each: as they lurch in 
and out of frenzy, their utterances alternate between reasoned lucidity 
and tormented, wordless exclamation, whether it be the ototototoi popoi 
da (ototototoi ttottoi 5 a) of Cassandra ( Ag. 1072) or Io’s io moi moi; 
he lie ’(icb poi por s e, Prom. 742). 

For Heracles in The Madness of Heracles and Agave in Bacchae, the 
sufferings produced by madness are even more ‘tragic’ (if we take that 
word to signify, this time, a quality of experience, rather than ‘that 
which is represented in a tragedy’) . The agent of Heracles’ delusion 
is once more the jealous Hera (acting now through Lyssa, goddess of 
Madness); the result is Heracles’ commission of acts no less terrible 
for being unwitting. As for Agave, the god she offends is Dionysus, 
whose divinity she, like her sisters, denies. Her punishment is to be 
maddened, and in that state to dismember her still-living son Pentheus. 
Both of these explorations of madness involve the agonising return of 
the protagonists to their normal condition of mind, a process guided in 
each case by their father. Heracles’ guide is Amphitryon: 

Amph. There: look at the bodies of these children, lying where 
they fell. 

Her. Ah! What is this that I see? Ah no! 

Amph. They were no enemies, these children you fought 
against, my son. 

Her. Fought? Who killed these children? 


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Amph. You did, my son: your bow — and whichever god is 

(Her. 1131-5) 

For Agave, it is Cadmus who gently steers her mind onto the path of 
horrified recognition: 

Cadm. Whose house did you go to when you were married? 

Agave You gave me to Echion, one of the Sown Men, so they 

Cadm. What son was born to your husband in your home? 

Agave Pentheus, the product of my union with his father. 

Cadm. Whose head are you holding in your arms? 

Agave A lion’s head — at least, so said the women who hunted it. 

Cadm. Look directly at it: it is but a small labour to look upon it. 

Agave Ah! What am I looking at? What am I carrying in my 

Cadm. Gaze at it; learn the truth more clearly. 

Agave I see the greatest pain. I am wretched. 

(Ba. 1273-82) 

That Heracles was out of his ‘right’ mind when he slew his children is 
clear enough. But was Agave really deluded, while she was ecstatically 
worshipping Dionysus? How is ‘true wisdom’ to be defined? These are 
some of the many disturbing issues which Bacchae confronts. 

In summary: tragedy does not occupy a comfortable space within 
accepted concepts and assumptions. The distinctive location of tragic 
myths is in the gaps between certainties. Tragedy is a place of edges 
and margins, an in-between territory where boundaries — literal and 
metaphorical — are ripe for exploration and contestation. 

Divinities and Mortals 

I turn finally to a question fundamental to any attempt to clarify 
tragedy’s distinctiveness within the mythical tradition: How are the gods 

The actions of divinities are highlighted in every narrative genre 
which retells Greek myths. In Homeric epic, and in all subsequent 
Greek epics down to Nonnus, the gods play a decisive part. 20 Hes- 
iod’s Theogony self-evidently centres on divinities, but the same poet’s 


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Works and Days also accords a crucial role to the gods, for example, 
through the interrelated fates of Prometheus and Pandora — the gods’ 
gift to humanity. Pindaric praise-poetry — composed for victors in the 
Games celebrated for Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon — depends on con- 
stant reference to the gods’ transcendent power, as a foil and a paradigm 
for the deeds of mortal heroes and the victors who strive to emulate 
them. Herodotus’ Histories may focus on the glorious exploits of mor- 
tals in the Greco-Persian War, but the backdrop to these events is a 
structure of religious assumptions anchored in the mythical past . 21 As 
for comedy, Aristophanes’ plays take the existence of the gods as read, 
even if the nature of the reading allows for outrageous mockery of 
the rulers of the universe; half a millennium later, in a quite different 
comic vein, the dialogues of Lucian still mine the deeds of the gods 
in order to extract humour. To all this textual evidence must be added 
countless visual images from every period of classical antiquity, includ- 
ing objects as disparate as temple friezes, statues, coins, vases, and gems, 
all of which embody or are adorned by representations of divinities 
involved in mythological episodes . 22 Each of these genres, indeed each 
individual poet or artist, works from a particular perspective; the same is 
true of tragedy and tragedians. What, then, can we identify as distinctive 
about the tragic portrayal of gods and goddesses? 

First, a crucial preliminary. It must be stressed that the gods only 
very rarely form the centrepiece of a tragedy . 23 They are, rather, its 
framework, its backdrop, that which is beyond and behind the action — 
action which is carried forward by the mortal heroes and heroines, who 
choose, are deluded, come to grief, struggle courageously, in fear or 
madness or generosity or hatred. Nevertheless, those human actions 
always resonate against a more-than-human background, and it is this 
which we shall now investigate. 

No single ‘voice’ dominates this portrayal. Tragedy was 
competitive: in the contest at the City Dionysia, each playwright staged 
his own version of the mythological past, striving to be adjudged supe- 
rior to his rivals. Just as the music, choreography, and costuming of 
tragedies varied between play and play, so too did the representation 
of the gods. This variety is evident even in the tiny proportion of the total 
tragic output constituted by the surviving plays. To take one example: 
the dramatic device found in so many Euripidean works, whereby, dur- 
ing the prologue or epilogue, a divinity speaks authoritatively from the 
stage apparatus known as ‘the machine,’ is by contrast unusual in extant 
Sophocles, where we encounter a predominant sense of the difficulty 
of determining the gods’ views and intentions . 24 Even within a single 

1 77 

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work we find changing emphases. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the first play 
of the trilogy offers a picture of divine action which is at best enig- 
matic and at worst baffling ; 25 only in the third play do the gods stride 
forth upon the stage, as Apollo, the Furies, and Athena argue their 
cases and defend their individual, explicitly stated perspectives on the 

Making every allowance for such variations, however, we may still 
plausibly suggest a number of generalisations about the gods in tragedy. 
I shall mention four. 

Tragedy Explores Conflicts among the Gods 

Emphasis on conflict between divinities is far from being unique to 
tragedy. We need only think of the cosmic wars narrated in Hesiod’s 
Theogony, of the battles between the gods in the Iliad-, of the struggle 
between Athena and Poseidon in the Odyssey over the homecoming of 
Odysseus; of the squabble between Hermes and Apollo in the Homeric 
Hymn to Hermes, concerning the theft of his brother’s cattle by the new- 
born trickster god. Nevertheless, tragedy does show a marked interest 
in such conflicts — another aspect of tragedy’s location in ‘the space 
between.’ Sometimes these conflicts are about power and sovereignty; 
sometimes they are generated by boundary disputes over the various 
provinces of interest with which the gods are associated. In both kinds 
of conflict, human beings play the role of victims. 

A classic struggle over sovereignty is dramatised in Prometheus 
Bound, in which Zeus, the new and (as depicted by his adversaries) 
tyrannical ruler of the universe, is pitted against the no less divine 
Prometheus. For having dared to champion humanity in the face of 
Zeus’ intention to annihilate them, Prometheus is subjected to an inter- 
minable and horrible punishment: fixed to a rock in the Caucasus, he 
will have his endlessly self-regenerating liver torn to shreds daily by 
an eagle. However, the Titan, whose suffering is compounded by his 
knowledge of the full duration of his future torment (his name means 
‘Forethought’), refuses to defer to his tormentor, or to his tormentor’s 

Hermes Bring yourself, rash fool, at last 

To think correctly in face of your present anguish. 

Prom. You exhort me in vain, as if you were talking to the waves. 

Never convince yourself that I, in fear 

Of Zeus’ intent, will become feminised in my mind, 


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Begging my greatly hated enemy, with hands 
Upturned in womanish supplication, to free me from these 

No, never. 

(Prom. 999-1006) 

One aspect of the cosmic power-struggle dramatised in Prometheus 
Bound is the clash between two successive generations of gods. The same 
is true of the Oresteia, though here the climactic struggle is fought not 
over the fate of humanity as a whole, but over the fate of a single 
individual. Orestes’ act of matricide is defended by the ‘younger’ god 
Apollo and attacked by the ‘older’ Furies, the goddesses whose pri- 
mordial authority to punish kin-murderers long predates the coming to 
power of the Olympians. When Apollo’s side of the argument is con- 
firmed by the casting vote of his fellow Olympian Athena, the Furies’ 
resentment is couched in terms of generational conflict: 

You younger gods, you have ridden down 
The ancient laws, and torn them from my hands. 

(Eum. 778-9) 

Seniority was not the only reason for a divinity to assert a claim 
to honour, or to resent the behaviour of a fellow god. Differences in 
spheres of operation between deities also held ample potential for clashes 
of interest. In Hippolytus, the conflict between Artemis and Aphrodite 
works itself out through the lives and deaths of the family of The- 
seus; the goddesses themselves merely frame the action by appearing in 
the prologue (Aphrodite) and in the finale (Artemis) . When the young 
hunter Hippolytus prefers the chaste pursuits associated with the vir- 
ginal Artemis to the world of sexuality presided over by Aphrodite, his 
agonising death at the hands of the goddess of love leads Artemis, at 
the end of the play, to locate the action firmly within the context of 
the eternal rivalry between the two goddesses. As she says to the dying 

Let be. For, even when you are under the dark of earth, 
Aphrodite’s zealous anger shall not fall upon you 
Unavenged; your piety and noble spirit deserve requital. 

I, by my own hand, with these unerring arrows 
Shall wreak vengeance on the mortal she holds dearest. 

(Hipp. 1417-22) 


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The time of gods is not the time of mortals. Human lives may come 
and go, but Artemis and Aphrodite will forever embody antithetical 
perceptions of sexuality. 

In Tragedy the Gods’ Use of Power Can Be Openly Criticised, 
yet at the Same Time That Power Must Be Acknowledged, because 
it is Omnipresent and Unavoidable 

One feature of ancient Greek religion which can be particularly difficult 
to comprehend for a modern observer — especially one from a morally 
polarised monotheistic background — is its readiness to tolerate overt 
criticism of the gods’ behaviour. In few works of Greek literature is the 
conduct of a god placed under more intense scrutiny than in Euripides’ 
Ion. The plot narrates the consequences of the god’s rape of Creusa, an 
event which she recollects in an aria of extraordinary bitterness: 

You came with hair flashing 
Gold, as I gathered 
Into my cloak flowers ablaze 
With their golden light. 

Clinging to my pale wrists 
As I cried for my mother’s help 
You led me to a bed in a cave, 

A god and my lover, 

With no shame, 

Doing a favour to the Cyprian. 

In misery I bore you 

A son, whom in fear of my mother 

I placed in that bed 

Where you cruelly forced me. 26 

(Ion 887-901) 

This is not, to be sure, the only view of Apollo which the play presents. 
In the opening scene a servant of the god’s Delphic temple, a young 
man by the name of Ion — who (it will turn out) was born from Creusa’s 
union with Apollo - associates this shrine and its patron deity with the 
qualities of brightness, healing, and, above all, purity - in a very literal 
sense (Ion reports that his duties include frightening away birds from the 
temple, and sweeping the floor of the shrine when it has been fouled) . 
Moreover, after many twists and turns in the plot, mother and son will 
recognise each other, and Apollo’s paternity will be cast in a positive light 


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when Athena pronounces ex machina that ‘Apollo then has managed 
all things well’ (1595)- However, such a view is expressed only after the 
goddess has excused Apollo’s own attendance at the denouement in 
highly equivocal terms: 

I have come here in haste, sent by Apollo, 

Who did not think it right to come himself 
Into your sight, in case there should be blame 
For what has happened in the past. . . . 


When Creusa does at last utter praises of Apollo, it is because he has 
restored her son to her, not because she feels any differently about 
the sexual mistreatment which she herself received at the god’s hands 
(1609—10). The weight of the play leaves Apolline morality in at best an 
ambiguous light. 37 

Though the criticisms of Apollo in Ion are especially sustained 
and strident, in other tragedies too the conduct of various divinities 
is presented, at least by some of the characters, as worthy of censure. 
Sophocles’ Women ofTrachis highlights the ritual importance of Zeus, in 
relation to his oracle at Dodona and his altar at Cenaeum; Zeus is the 
addressee of numerous invocations, prayers and oaths; Zeus holds sway 
over Mount Oeta, the location of the funeral pyre to which Heracles 
will be conveyed. But as an agent within the drama the father of the gods 
is noticeable by his complete absence, even when his son Heracles cries 
out to him in anguish (‘O Zeus, where in the world have I come?’ — 
the hero’s very first words, 983—4). Furthermore, although Heracles’ 
expression ‘Zeus in the stars’ (1106) does not necessarily imply a tone of 
irony or resentment, the concluding reference by Heracles’ son Hyllus 
to ‘the great cruelty of the gods displayed in what is being done, gods 
who beget children and are called fathers but who can look upon such 
sufferings as these’ (1266-9) can only be taken as a bitter accusation 
of a state of divinely ordered affairs which can tolerate such a waste of 
human life. And yet the seeds of a perception which counterbalances 
Hyllus’ accusations are already present in the choral coda to the play: 

‘There is none of these things which is not Zeus.’ 

{Track. 1278) 28 

The gods are there, and they are powerful: mortals ignore them at their 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

Two other Sophoclean plays bring home this realisation with par- 
ticular force. In Ajax, long before the eponymous hero made his attempt 
on the lives of the Greek commanders, he had (so a Newsbringer 
reports) made a reckless boast about his lack of need of divine help: 
‘Father, together with the gods even one who is nothing could win 
mastery; but I trust that I shall grasp this glory even without them!’ 
(767-9). When seen in the light of Athena’s concluding words in the 
opening scene (‘Look, then, at such things, and never yourself speak an 
arrogant word against the gods . . . For one day brings down all mor- 
tal things, and one day raises them up; the gods love those who think 
sensibly and hate the wicked’ (127—33)), Ajax’s arrogance shows a fatal 
misunderstanding of the proper relationship between mortals and gods. 
Equally heedless of the divine framework of human ethical behaviour 
is Creon in Antigone. Though Antigone herself might merely be using 
self-justifying rhetoric when she invokes ‘the unwritten and unfailing 
laws of the gods’ (454) to back her defiant burial of her traitorous brother 
Polynices, her position receives unequivocal support from the seer Tire- 
sias, who describes how a horrific distortion of sacrificial practice has 
been precipitated by the exposing ofPolynices’ corpse (1016—22). Creon 
rescinds his decree forbidding burial, but too late; his refusal to com- 
prehend how the world works culminates, not only in the death of 
Antigone, but also in the suicides of his own son and wife. 

The Omnipresence of Divine Influence on Human Action 
in Tragedy Does Not Negate the Importance of Human Choke 

Contrary to a common misperception of what Greek tragedy is like, 
tragic myths do not simply illustrate the inevitability of ‘fate.’ It is true 
that spectators and readers are often confronted with the subjecting of 
human beings to irresistible pressure from the gods: Heracles is sent mad 
by Hera, and Ajax by Athena; Phaedra does not choose to fall in love 
with her stepson - her passion is caused by Aphrodite; when Pentheus 
suddenly expresses a desire to see the maenads on Mount Cithaeron, it 
is because his mind has been invaded by Dionysus. But such cases must 
be set against those where the preponderant dramatic meaning is borne 
by actions which are squarely the consequence of human choice. 

Two plays by Sophocles will exemplify this point. Oedipus Tyrannus 
has often been taken to be the paradigm of a work in which a human 
being is shown to be powerless against fortune. And yet the plot of 
the play - as opposed to the mythical events, and in particular the 

1 8 2 

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oracular predictions, which constitute its antecedents — concerns a man 
who, whatever the cost, is bent upon two interrelated courses of action: 
at first, doing everything necessary to free his city from the pollution 
which has engulfed it; then, finding out his own identity, from the 
moment when this has been called into question. These courses of 
action are, to put it crudely, what the play is about; and they are the 
product of Oedipus’ own choosing. Even when the now blind king 
cries out to the chorus that ‘It was Apollo, friends, Apollo who brought 
about these cruel, cruel sufferings of mine!’ (1329-30), not only is it 
unclear in what sense Apollo can possibly be ‘responsible’ for what has 
occurred, but also Oedipus immediately goes on to maintain his own 
responsibility for the most shocking deed to have taken place within the 
time-frame of the play — his self-blinding (‘And no other hand but mine 
struck my eyes, miserable that I am!’ 1331— 2). Whatever Apollo’s oracle 
may have predicted, and whatever the putative relationship between 
such predictions and the eventual outcome, what is undeniable is that 
nothing in the play for a moment suggests that the truth was ‘fated’ to 
come out in this way — and it is the manner of the revelation of the truth 
which bears the weight of the work’s dramatic significance. 

Ajax offers another example of the overriding importance of 
human choice. The play begins with a demonstration of the cool, ter- 
rifying power of a divinity, Athena, first to drive a great hero mad, and 
then to mock and toy with him while he is in that condition: mighty 
Ajax ignominiously drips with the blood of sacrificial sheep, which he 
believes to be the blood of the Greek commanders whom he has, he 
thinks, put to death because (in his view) they had slighted him. But 
this state of helpless delusion, of powerless submission to the gods, soon 
gives way: initially to a consciousness of profound shame, and then to 
a decision to commit suicide. This decision is Ajax’s alone: a decision 
taken with deliberation, like the deliberation with which he fixes in the 
earth the sword upon which he will fall (815—22). This is not the only 
crucial moment in the play for which the frame of reference is presented 
as completely within the hands of mortals. The rancorous debate about 
whether or not to allow burial to Ajax is driven exclusively by human 
emotions: anger, invective, loyalty, together with the ultimately decisive 
ingredient of self-interest added by Odysseus (‘I too shall come to that 
need,’ 1365). Athena’s controlling presence left the stage long ago. 

We have mentioned some cases where the gods evidently compel, 
and others where mortals unambiguously choose. But in still other cases 
tragic action occupies an intermediate ground between compulsion and 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

choice. When, in Agamemnon, the chorus recalls the episode in which 
the Greek commander sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to 
appease the anger of Artemis, the words they use are ‘When he had 
put on the yoke-strap of necessity . . . ’ (218). The paradox could not be 
more stark. Agamemnon put on the yoke-strap: it was a freely chosen 
act. But the yoke-strap which he put on was that of necessity: he had 
no choice. In representing the involvement of the gods in human life, 
tragic myths dwell on crises in which precisely this kind of paradox 
comes into focus. 

The Gods of Tragedy Are Partially Comprehensible, but Aspects of 
Them Remain Unfathomable, Incommensurable, and Unknowable 

We have already met several instances in which the role and attitude 
of the gods is explicitly set out in the tragic action. Usually this is 
when the gods themselves appear on the scene and speak. Sometimes 
a divinity will set out the ground rules of the action only to depart 
for good (e.g., Athena in Ajax, Hermes in Ion, Athena and Poseidon 
in The Trojan Women)' in other cases it will be left to a divinity at the 
end of a play to reintegrate the action into the audience’s experience 
by referring to ritual (Artemis at the end of Hippolytus ; Athena at the 
end of Iphigenia in Tauris) or by placing the events of the play in a 
wider mythical context (Castor in Euripides’ Electra; Apollo in Orestes; 
Thetis in Andromache) . Less often, divinities express their own point of 
view either throughout the action or at its midpoint, rather than at its 
beginning or end: Dionysus is on stage for much of Bacchae; Iris and 
Lyssa appear midway through Heracles; in Eumenides Apollo, the Furies, 
and Athena dominate the action in person. 

But there are also cases in which that which receives emphasis is 
not the gods’ visibility but their ultimate unpredictability and unfath- 
omability. Of the three great Athenian tragedians, Euripides is the one 
who most insistently confronts spectators with what they seemingly 
could not have anticipated, so much so that a choral coda to this effect 
becomes a refrain in several of his works: 

Many are the shapes of the divinities; 

The gods bring many matters to surprising ends; 

The things we thought would happen do not happen; 

For the unexpected the god finds a way. 

Such was the conclusion of this story. 29 


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Although it is usually impossible to determine precisely how far the 
spectators’ background knowledge of mythology might have shaped 
their expectations, the manner in which Euripides introduces abrupt 
changes of dramatic direction suggests that even an audience acquainted 
with the general outlines of a myth might have reacted with astonish- 
ment: one example is the shocking arrival, in Heracles, of Lyssa goddess 
of madness; another - this time narrated as opposed to enacted - is the 
appearance of the monstrous bull from the sea as reported by the News- 
bringer in Hippolytus. Such epiphanies sharpen an audiences sense of 
the gulfbetween mortal and divinity and dramatize the ultimate incom- 
mensurability of human with divine, even in a medium such as tragedy, 
in which god and mortal visibly tread the stage side by side. 30 

Fundamental though the unexpected may be to Euripidean dra- 
maturgy, some of the most striking illustrations of the gods’ unfathoma- 
bility are to be found in works by the other two great tragedians. Near 
the beginning of Agamemnon, in the course of the chorus’s monumental 
opening ode, the old men of Argos recall an episode from the outset 
of the Greek expedition against Troy. When the fleet was gathered at 
Aulis, two eagles were seen devouring a pregnant hare. The beginning 
of any military campaign was a sensitive and dangerous time, when — 
given a belief-system in which human and cosmic events were perceived 
to be mutually interconnected 31 — anything remotely unusual would be 
interpreted as ominous. The Greek seer Calchas duly read the strange 
occurrence as a sign: in this case, a sign of the displeasure of Artemis, 
who ‘hates the eagles’ feast’ (138). But why Artemis should not only 
‘hate’ this natural event, but also, if the Aeschylean text is taken to mean 
what it says, 32 take it as a justification for her subsequent injunction 
upon Agamemnon to sacrifice his own daughter — these matters are left 
opaque. At the origin of the action of the Oresteia is an enigma wrapped 
in a riddle; and at the centre of the enigma is the attitude of the gods 
towards humanity. 

But it is neither Aeschylus nor Euripides who presents the pur- 
poses of the gods at their most inscrutable. The tragedian who does 
this is Sophocles; above all, in Oedipus Tyrannus. ‘To the gods,’ Oedipus 
maintains, just as the play is about to end (1519), ‘I am most hateful.’ 
If Oedipus is hated by the gods - as opposed to simply feeling that he 
is hated - then there must be a reason for it, since it would be out of 
keeping with everything we know of Greek religion if one or more 
divinities were to conceive an unmotivated hatred for a mortal. And the 
reason is not far to seek: the sending of the plague upon Thebes, an 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

unambiguous indication of divine displeasure, follows inexorably upon 
the miasma generated by Oedipus’ hideous transgressions. But that is 
far from being the end of the matter. For why should it have been 
precisely Oedipus, and not someone else, who has been put into the 
position, unwittingly, of incurring this displeasure? Did the gods will 
that? Nothing in the play entitles us to give an answer; indeed, nothing 
in the play raises the question at all. What the gods want for Oedipus 
remains as enigmatic at the end of the play as it was at the beginning. 

Tragic myths offer a spectacle of a world in which mortals try to 
cope with events at the limits of or beyond their comprehension; even 
when these events are comprehended, they are comprehended too late. 
But Greek tragedy is not just a record of human inadequacy. The sense 
of limitation is offset by a whole range of positives: Oedipus’ moral 
strength in his relentless quest for the truth; Neoptolemus’ change of 
heart, when he decides to abandon his deception of Philoctetes and to 
take him home (even though the decision is eventually countermanded 
by Heracles); Theseus’ generosity of spirit towards Heracles and 
Oedipus; the linguistic sublimity of Ajax and Cassandra when they 
gain insight into how the world is. 33 Most of the characteristics which 
I have described as ‘distinctively tragic’ can be paralleled in one or 
more other genres of myth-telling. But the combination of all of them 
in tragedy is what makes the genre unique. It is nothing less than an 
exploration, through the medium of traditional tales, of the place of 
humanity in the world, an exploration both popular and profound. Of 
all the ancient forms of myth-telling, only the Homeric poems can rival 
the tragedies in their continuing power to hold, enchant, shock, and 
unsettle. 34 

Further Reading 

A variety of perspectives on the complex interrelation of myth, muthos 
and tragedy can be found in the studies by Vickers (1973), Vernant 
and Vidal-Naquet (1988), Burian (1997), Calame (2000a) and Bux- 
ton (2002). For commentary on specifically Aristotelian aspects of the 
muthos /tragedy relationship one should consult Jones (1962) and, espe- 
cially regarding the history of scholarship on this problem, Lurje (2004). 

For analysis of the representation of Medea in and out of tragedy, 
a good place to start is Clauss and Johnston (1997); see also Moreau 


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When it comes to investigations of the interplay between myth 
and tragedy in individual plays, literally hundreds of studies might be 
recommended; however, an excellent starting-point is the massive and 
reliable volume by Gantz (1993). 

Discussion of the role of the gods in Greek tragedy is similarly 
extensive; a helpful article, with bibliography pointing towards the rel- 
evant scholarship, is Parker (1999). On this subject, as indeed on the 
whole topic of the present chapter, it would be impossible to read Gould 
(2001) without being obliged to reflect on the fundamental questions 
at issue. 


1 See Pickard-Cambridge (1968); Csapo and Slater (1994). 

2 However exaggerated one may consider the reverence paid to Aristotle’s Poetics 
over the centuries, the composite Aristotelian concept of pity-and-fear remains 
a pointer towards reconstructing the experience of Greek tragedy; cf. Buxton 
(2002). On the whole question of the role of the Poetics in the history of the 
interpretation of tragedy, see now Lurje (2004). 

3 There are many ways of asking and answering this question: two examples, com- 
plementary both to my own approach and to each other, are the general account 
by Burian (1997) and the more specific one by Calame (2000a). 

4 See Redfield (1975). 

5 Plato ( Republic 602 b9— 10) significantly takes ‘tragic poetry’ to be a quality of both 
epic and drama. Plato identifies a ‘tragic’ viewpoint which stresses humanity’s sub- 
jection to indifferent or hostile divine forces — the opposite of his own metaphysical 
and ethical position, which locates happiness exclusively in the individual soul’s 
capacity to choose between good and evil. On this, see the excellent discussion in 
Halliwell (2002). 

6 For an insightful account of the motif of the return home in Pindaric poetry, see 
Crotty (1982), esp. 104-38. 

7 O’Higgins (1997) 121. 

8 O’Higgins (1997) 103. 

9 On the whole I am sceptical of attempts, for example, by Segal (1986: 15—29), to 
emphasise at every turn the craftiness and duplicity of the Pindaric Jason- with- 
Medea; I prefer Burton’s more straightforward reading (1962: 150—73). To find 
ambiguity everywhere is to risk bleaching out its impact when it does occur. 

10 For a fascinating treatment of the Apsyrtus story, see Bremmer (1997). 

11 According to the scholiast on this passage in Apollonius (Schol. Ap. Rhod. 
4.814—15, p. 293 W), this intriguing detail was apparently also found in Iby- 
cus and Simonides (PMG 291 Ibycus = PMG 558 Simonides); cf. Gantz (1993) 
133 - 

12 See Moreau (1994) 174. 

13 Modern critics usually refer to such characters as ‘Messengers,’ but as often as not 
there is no message: just news from elsewhere. 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

14 Compare also the Nurses remarkable expression at 34—5, where she observes that 
Medea has realized what it means not to have been uprooted from ones native 

15 I have explored the unique language of Ajax in Buxton (2006). 

16 See Buxton (2002) 184. 

17 This kind of ‘boundary decision,’ while typical of tragedy, is certainly not exclusive 
to it. A classic case from epic is that from Book 4 of Apollonius’ Argonautica. The 
Phaeacian king Alcinous has to find a criterion by which to determine whether 
to return Medea to the pursuing Colchians, or to allow her to remain with Jason. 
His Solomon-like judgment is that, if Medea is still a virgin, she must go back to 
Colchis; but if she has already been united with Jason, she should not be forced to 
leave him (Ap. Rhod. 4.1106—9). 

18 The imagined location of the building need not be Greece: cf. Euripides’ Helen 
(set in Egypt) or Aeschylus’ Persians (set in Persia); and there may be equivalents of a 
house, such as a more-or-less permanent warrior-tent (Ajax, set in the Greek camp 
at Troy). But there are exceptions: the scene of Prometheus Bound is the extreme 
wilderness of the Caucasus; that of Sophocles’ Philoctetes is before a cave on the 
sea-shore of Lemnos. 

19 N.b. also Mt. Oeta in Sophocles’ Women ofTrachis. On tragic mountains see Buxton 
(1992) 12—14. 

20 On Homer see, for example, Griffin (1980) 144—204; Kraus (1984); Kullmann 
(1992); Kearns (2004). On post-Homeric epic, Feeney (1991) is fundamental. 

21 For an incisive contribution to this much-discussed topic, see Gould (2001) 
359 - 77 - 

22 The first place to turn for information about visual evidence for Greek mythology 
is the indispensable Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. 

23 Even in the case of Prometheus Bound, it could be argued that the central character 
is not simply a Titan, but also a kind of honorary hero, in virtue of his steadfast 
support for humankind. 

24 The two appearances of divinities in the extant plays are those of Athena at the 
beginning of Ajax and the deified Heracles at the end of Philoctetes. For four other 
instances in the fragmentary plays, cf. the discussion in Parker (1999) 11— 12. 

25 On tragic ‘bafflement,’ see Buxton (1988). 

26 Adapted from translation by R. F. Willetts (The Complete Greek Tragedies, Chicago, 
1958). (The other translations from tragedy in the present chapter — which make 
no claim to literary merit — are my own.) 

27 See chapter 3 of Zacharia (2003) for an exploration of the ambiguity of Apollo in 
this play. 

28 In spite of the views of some scholars who assign this and the preceding three lines 
to Hyllus, I believe that the concluding voice of the play should be that of the 
chorus. For a justification of this view see Buxton (1988) 43—4. 

29 This passage occurs at the end of Alcestis (1159—63), Andromache (1284—8), 
Helen (1688—92), and Bacchae (1388—92), and, with a variation in the first line 
(which now runs: ‘Zeus on Olympus is dispenser of many things’), Medea 

30 See Gould (2001) 203—34, on the incommensurability of the divine with the 


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Tragedy and Greek Myth 

31 A thought-provoking study of ‘interconnectedness’ is to be found in Oudemans 
and Lardinois (1987). 

32 Compare Page (1957) xxv. 

33 Aj. 669-77 and Agam. 1327-30. 

34 Several friends and colleagues have helped me to think through the issues developed 
in this chapter. In particular, I must single out Michael Luije, whose detailed and 
thoughtful comments enabled me to remove at least some of the shortcomings in 
my argument. 


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5: Myth in Aristophanes 1 

Angus Bowie 

O ne possible desideratum from the application of new tech- 
nologies to the problem of reading the carbonised Hercula- 
neum scrolls might be, for students of Greek Old Comedy 
at any rate, a papyrus-roll of mythical comedies. When we look at the 
scanty remains of Old Comedy, it appears that something like a third 
of the extant titles could have come from comedies on mythological 
topics: 2 and yet not one of them has survived in more than a tiny 
number of fragments. Indeed, the only play that gives us any idea of 
what they might have looked like is Plautus’ Amphitryon, possibly based 
on Philemon’s New Comedy The Long Night. This treats the story of 
Jupiter’s lengthy dalliance with King Amphitryon’s wife, and the king’s 
awkward return. It makes much play with the fact that the god has 
disguised himself as the king, and pretends to have returned from the 
war; his servant Mercury disguises himself as Amphitryon’s slave Sosia. 
Mercury has a long scene in which he punishes Sosia s presumption in 
claiming to be Sosia, in order to delay him to give Jupiter time to escape. 
Jupiter has the decency to step in to make up the quarrel that breaks 
out between husband and wife as a result of the misunderstandings, and 
makes an appearance at the end to sort everything out. As is generally 
the case in later Greek comedy, 3 the gods are very much brought down 
to the level of mortals in terms of character and concerns, and come 
across as more rascally than the poor deluded mortals; their power to do 
whatever they wish makes for a good deal of the comedy. How far this 
later ‘embourgeoisement’ of the gods was a feature of Old Comedy is 
not possible to tell. 

Our best evidence for mythological Old Comedy lies in the sur- 
vival on a papyrus of a substantial part of the ancient summary ( hypoth- 
esis ) of Cratinus’ Dionysalexandrus ( Dionysus Plays Paris), whose story 


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Mytii in Aristophanes 

has similarities with the kind of escape-dramas that are associated with 
satyr-plays . 4 

. . .judgement, Hermes goes away and the chorus address 
a few words to the audience about the generation of chil- 
dren [?or poets] and when Dionysus appears they mock and 
ridicule him. When they [?the goddesses] come [?to him], 
he. . . . Hera offers unshakable tyranny, Athena courage in 
war and Aphrodite the chance to be the most beautiful 
and desirable of men; Dionysus decides that Aphrodite is 
the winner. After this, he sails to Sparta and brings Helen 
back to Mount Ida. In a while, he hears that the Achaeans 
are ravaging the land and looking for Alexander [Paris], 

So, as quickly as he can, he hides Helen in a basket, and, 
changing himself into a ram, awaits developments. Alexan- 
der arrives, discovers them both and is about to give them to 
the Achaeans. When Helen cowers in fear, he pities her and 
keeps her to make her his wife; Dionysus he sends off to be 
handed over later, but the satyrs summon him and say they 
would never betray him. Pericles is mocked in the play very 
cleverly by implication ( di ’ ernphctseos), for having brought 
the war on the Athenians. 

We can deduce a few points about mythological Old Comedy 
from this summary, though it would be dangerous to generalise too 
much. The myth of Troy is reworked so that Dionysus becomes as it 
were a failed actor in the role of Paris, which turns out to be too hot 
for him to handle. The humour of the play will also have consisted in 
the constant clash between the heroic tale of Troy and the buffoonery 
of the god. The god was mocked on his very first appearance, and 
this tallies with what we know of the treatment of Dionysus elsewhere 
in Old Comedy: it was a genre in which the gods were not spared 
mockery, even the god in whose honour the festival was being held. 
Indeed, Dionysus is the most frequent butt of humour in the comedies, 
as far as we can tell: the god features regularly in his own festival . 5 Also 
notable is the change in the story of the Judgement of Paris, whereby 
the vanity of Dionysus is marked by the way that Aphrodite offers not 
possession of the most beautiful woman in the world, as in the usual 
version, but the possibility of being himself the most beautiful of men. 
It may be that this element of sexual voraciousness accounts for the 
change into a ram, in what is also a parody of his change into animal 

1 9 i 

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forms, evident in his mythology and, for instance, in Euripides’ Bacchae. 
Unfortunately, the summary does not specify how the play ended, but 
on the analogy of what we know of satyr-plays, 6 in which the god 
and satyrs are saved from whatever quandary they find themselves in, 
we may presume that the problems are finally resolved and the god 
celebrated; but how exactly this version of the Trojan story ended we 
cannot know. Aristotle has a salutary passage in which he says that ‘in 
comedy, those who are the bitterest enemies in the story, such as Orestes 
and Aegisthus, become the best of friends by the end, and nobody is 
killed by anybody’ (Poet. 1453 a. 36-9). It looks as though comedy could 
take considerable liberties with mythology if the relationships between 
two implacable enemies such as Orestes and Aegisthus could end, not 
in Orestes’ murder of Aegisthus for the seduction of his mother and 
murder of his father, but in friendship. Finally, the similarity between 
the plot of this play and those of satyr-plays raises the question, which 
we are ill-placed to answer, of how such comedies differed from satyr- 
plays. A possibility is that there was a greater element of burlesque and 
excess in the comedies, but we do not know. 

If we look elsewhere in the fragments of Old Comedy, we find, 
not surprisingly, that any potentially ludicrous aspects of the myths were 
seized on, as in this play. Metamorphosis of gods recurs in, for instance, 
Cratinus’ Nemesis, which, in a manner reminiscent of the Amphitryon, 
dramatised the myth of how Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce 
Nemesis. He is to ‘become a big bird’ (fr. 114). The heroine Leda is 
given instructions: ‘it’s up to you: you must make an elegant attempt 
to make yourself as much like a hen as possible, sit on this egg, and 
hatch us some fine and amazing bird from it’ (fr. 115). In this Attic 
version, Nemesis replaces Leda as the mother of Helen, 7 though she 
is appropriate for the story because she has herself the experience of 
seduction by Zeus in the form of a bird: he seduced her as a swan 
and she gave birth to Helen in an egg. Olympian deities were thus 
regularly put in ridiculous situations, but exactly how far they were sent 
up is, it must be admitted, not for the most part deducible from the 
fragments. On the other hand, Aristophanes’ Frogs, though not strictly 
a mythological comedy, suggests that the humour against the gods was 
fairly hard-hitting: a comedian could go as far as to show on stage the 
god of the dramatic festival being incontinent with fear (479-91). 

It was not, however, only deities whose stories featured in mytho- 
logical comedy. Another striking play by Cratinus is his Odysses 
( Odysseus and His Men), which dealt at least in part with Odysseus’ 
encounter with the Cyclops, as recounted in Homer’s Odyssey. Some 


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of the fragments look like reworkings of lines or part-lines of Homer’s 
account, suggesting a relatively close reworking of the Homeric tale, 
with the humour coming from the clash between the Homeric situ- 
ation and language and the comic treatment of it. One fact about it 
has been preserved by an ancient scholar: according to Platonius, ‘it 
contains censure of no-one, but criticism of Homer’s Odyssey, ’ s so in 
this it appears to differ from, for instance, the Dionysalexandrus, with its 
political flavour. We have here then a kind of mythological burlesque. 
The parody of Homer is quite learned, but the less learned would no 
doubt have picked up on the hexameter rhythms and Homeric diction, 
familiar from, say, the recitations of Homer at the Panathenaea. 

The synopsis of Dionysalexandrus also tells us, tantalisingly, that 
the mythical story had a political purpose, that in some way Pericles’ 
war-policy was mocked or criticised. It is always possible that this is 
a false deduction made by a later scholar, but the fact that Pericles 
was notoriously a sexually successful man would suit the depiction of 
Dionysus after Aphrodite has made him the most desirable of men, 
so that the play may have been more or less explicit in its reference 
to current history. The idea of Pericles involving Athens in war for 
sexual reasons is again used, by Aristophanes, in Acharnians, where the 
theft of some of his lover Aspasia’s ‘prostitutes’ by drunken Megarian 
youths leads him to promulgate the Megarian Decrees, which restart 
the Peloponnesian War. 

Furthermore, from what we can tell, politics was mixed into myth- 
ical comedy quite frequently. 9 Pericles was compared to Zeus, 10 and 
Aspasia to a number of goddesses and heroines, though these may, in 
some cases at least, have been simple comparisons, rather than allegorical 
representations as posited for Dionysalexandrus by the hypothesis . 11 Other 
plays seem actually to have introduced gods and heroes physically into 
fifth-century Athens. For instance, in Cratinus’ Pluti the Titans came 
to earth from Tartarus to seek an unknown ‘ancient relative’ (possi- 
bly Plutus himself) and took part in the trial of Nicias’ son, Hagnon, 
on a charge of unjust enrichment. Fr. 171.22— 3 has a political flavour: 
‘now that the reign of tyranny has been [Pbroken] , and the people are 
in power. . . . ’ The tyranny here is presumed to be Zeus’ and so there 
might be another reference to Pericles, who was removed from power 
in 429. Similarly, Cratinus’ Runaways somehow combined the mythical 
Theseus, who tells how ‘I discovered Cercyon shitting at dawn among 
the vegetables and strangled him’ (fr. 53), referring to a cruel figure 
to whom he put an end, and the historical Lampon, who was sent by 
Pericles to found a colony at Thurii. 


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The last-named play involved Theseus, but it is worth noting 
that in general Old Comedy, like tragedy, tends to use well-known, 
‘Panhellenic’ myths; local Attic myths are seldom found, even at the 
Lenaea festival, where only Athenians were present. We have seen a rare 
exception to this in the Nemesis, where an Attic version of the birth 
of Helen is used. On the other hand, Theseus himself appears in the 
titles of only two plays, by Aristonymus and Theopompus, though he 
made an appearance not only in Cratinus’ Runaways but also possibly in 
Philyllius’ Aegeus . 12 Major Athenian mythical figures, such as Cecrops, 
Erechtheus and his daughters, Pandion, and Triptolemus, do not seem 
to have plays about them. 13 Local cults do sometimes furnish plots, but 
seldom. The best example is Aristophanes’ Anagyrus, which dealt with 
the legend of an Attic farmer from that deme, who was punished for 
sacrilege by the loss of his wife and the mistaken banishment of his son, 
as a result of a false accusation by his mother-in-law; the farmer finally 
burned himself and his property, and his wife committed suicide. This 
was not, however, a case of a local legend simply staged for local people, 
since it also involved parody of Euripides’ Hippolytus, to which the 
comedy’s plot had obvious similarities. Indeed, one of the fragments 
contains a parody of lines of the tragedy, in which Phaedra’s tragic 
expression of desire to engage in an ecstatic hunt becomes a comic desire 
to hunt and eat cicadas. 14 Telecleides’ Amphictyons treated Amphictyon’s 
introduction of Dionysus and his cult into Attica, a natural topic for a 
Dionysiac festival, and Pherecrates’ Ant Men recounted the Aeginetan 
myth of the creation of men from ants. 

The plays we have looked at so far, for which we have more 
evidence than for most, have given some idea, however threadbare, 
of what mythological comedy was like. We have needed to take this 
initial detour into the work of other comedians, because the amount of 
information we have about Aristophanes’ own mythological comedies 
is unfortunately somewhat restricted. We can begin with a list of titles. 
The following may have belonged to mythical comedies: Aeoiosicon I 
and II, Daedalus, Daughters ofDanaus, Dramata or the Centaur, Drarnata or 
Niobos, Heroes, Cocalus, Lemnian Women, Polyidus, and Phoenician Women. 
That is 10 titles out of the 43 we know, a little less than the crude average 
for the century. Even here, however, one has to be careful, since a title 
that suggests a play was mythological may be deceptive. For instance, the 
title Amphiaraus alone might suggest a play on the mythical seer who led 
the Seven against Thebes, but the fragments make it clear that the play 
was concerned with his prophetic shrine, which came into existence 
after his death at Thebes, and not with his myth. 


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Mytii in Aristophanes 

The paucity of evidence is extremely frustrating. Sometimes the 
title tells us what the basic myth behind the play is, but then the frag- 
ments let us go no further, and we must always remember Aristotle’s 
remark about the unexpected treatment of familiar myths by Old Com- 
edy. The Letnnian Women will have told of the arrival of the Argonauts, 
after the Lemnian women had murdered their husbands for taking off 
with Thracian slave-girls, and of the marriage of Jason and Hypsipyle, 
but more than that we cannot say, though the same myth can be dis- 
cerned structurally behind the extant LysistrataT 

Two plays have intriguing titles, Dramata (‘‘Dramas’) or The Centaur 
and Dramata or Niobos, which may (but equally may not) point to a 
metatheatrical element. The former seems to have dealt with Heracles’ 
entertainment by Pholus and with his fight with the Centaurs, thus 
introducing the hero who was the most popular hero in Old Comedy: 
not surprisingly, the few fragments talk of food and drink taken with 
enthusiasm. The second play is very opaque, but the masculine form 
‘Niobos’ suggests that in some way a male figure took the role of Niobe, 
who was punished by Apollo and Artemis for boasting that she had 
borne more children than their mother Leto. An intriguing possibility, 
but quite obscure. 

Sometimes, however, tentatively putting together what we do 
know allows us to discern some trends. On occasion, the fragments of 
other plays allow us glimpses into how Aristophanes may have treated 
the stories. Similarities to Cratinus’ treatment of the Nemesis story can 
be discerned in the Daedalus. The story is of Zeus’ seduction of Leto by 
taking the form of a swan, and the birth of Apollo and Artemis. Again, 
the comedy seeks the burlesque in the story. In Hesiod’s account and in 
that of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the birth of the deities has nothing 
gynaecologically odd about it, but here Leto gives birth to ‘a mighty 
egg’ (fr. 193), about whose origins there is speculation (fr. 194). It has 
been suggested that the eponymous Daedalus was involved in creating a 
bird which Zeus used to approach Leto, much as he produced the cow 
which Pasiphae used to seduce her favourite bull. Farce is thus brought 
into stories by the exploitation of their more bizarre elements, such as 
gods taking the form of birds. 

The title of Cocalus points to the story of the murder of Minos at 
the hands of King Cocalus and his daughters when he came in search 
of Daedalus: before offering Minos the hospitality of his bath, Cocalus 
rigged up hot-water pipes so that he could scald Minos to death. This 
may seem a grim topic for a comedy, and how it was treated we do not 
know, but we may gain some insight into it from the Proagon, which 


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dealt with an even grimmer tale. The ‘Proagon’ was a ceremony at 
which the playwrights displayed their choruses and revealed the plots 
of their plays; in some way, in the comedy this was combined with the 
treatment of the story of Thyestes, who was tricked into eating his own 
children by his brother Atreus, whose wife he had seduced. One of the 
characters says: ‘I’ve tasted a sausage made of my children; how could 
I look at a roast snout?’ (fr. 478), and it may be the same person who 
said: ‘Ugh! What is causing my stomach to churn? Damn it! Where 
could I get a chamber-pot?’ (fr. 477). Again, what in tragedy is grim 
and unpleasant becomes a source of amusement, and it is not impossible, 
indeed perhaps likely, that the children were not in fact eaten. 

One not infrequent category of comedy is that which parodies 
earlier tragic performances of myths. The difficulty here is that it is not 
always clear whether Aristophanes is producing a parodic version of a 
myth or a parody of a particular tragic version of that myth. For instance, 
the Daughters of Damns would have told the story of the arrival in Greece 
of the daughters of Danaus, fleeing from marriage to their cousins in 
Egypt, and of the marriage of Hypermestra, one of their number, to 
Lynceus, but whether it was a parody of, say, Aeschylus’ trilogy on the 
subject cannot be known. Other cases are clearer. Polyidus was probably 
a parody specifically of Euripides’ Glaucus, which had a complex plot 
involving the drowning of Glaucus, Minos’ young son, in a vat of honey, 
a portent of a cow that changed colour three times a day, an owl that 
indicated to Polyidus where Glaucus was hidden, and snakes that were 
brought back to life by magical herbs and so showed how Glaucus 
could be revived. The comic potential in all this is obvious, but what 
Aristophanes did with it is obscure. 

The Phoenician Women was more certainly, at least in part, a parody 
of Euripides’ recent play of the same name, since two of the fragments 
are partial quotations from Euripides’ play (frr. 570, 574). This example 
comes from the last decade of the fifth century, when there seems to 
have been a fashion for writing comedies that parodied recent tragedies 
(usually by Euripides), not just in part but so that the whole comedy 
was a takeoff of the tragedy. The fashion may possibly have been started 
by Aristophanes’ own Thesmophoriazusae, which for much of its course 
is composed sequentially of parodies of Euripides’ Telephus, Palamedes, 
Helen, and Andromeda. As we shall see below, Thesmophoriazusae engages 
closely with the nature of Euripidean tragedy, and this may have trig- 
gered the fashion for plays of this sort, though the other playwrights 
do not, as far as we can tell, have anything as complex as Thesmophori- 
azusae. Strattis seems to have been especially fond of this type of play. 


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Mytii in Aristophanes 

Like Aristophanes, he also wrote a Phoenician Women, which again par- 
odies lines of Euripides’ play. 16 His Anthroporestes describes Euripides’ 
Orestes as a ‘very clever play’ (fr. i) and complains of Hegelochus’ noto- 
rious mispronunciation of Or. 279, in which he pronounced a wrong 
accent and turned ‘I see a calm coming from the sea’ into ‘I see a weasel 
coming from the sea.’ Strattis also wrote a Chrysippus, as did Euripides 
around this time, and his Philoctetes may be a response to Sophocles’ play 
of 409. The Lemnomeda may have imitated Thesmophoriazusae’s combi- 
nation of plays by mixing Euripides’ Andromeda (412) and his Hypsipyle 
(408 or 7). 17 There is one example of parody of a tragedian outside 
the ‘big three’: Strattis’ Zopyrus Ablaze parodied Spintharus’ Heracles 

At the start of this chapter, and in the last paragraph, we came 
across titles of a double nature, such as Dionysalexandrus, Lemnomeda, 
and Anthroporestes. The point of the last title is obscure (there is also 
Pherecrates’ Anthropheracles) , but the point of the others is clear. There 
is one such title for Aristophanes, the Aeolosicon, which combines two 
names of people with very different status: Aeolus, the king who in 
the Odyssey controls the winds and presides over an unusual family 
where, unproblematically, six sons are married to six daughters in a 
palace of delightful luxury; and Sicon, a traditional name for a cook 
in Greek comedy. The play involved parody of Euripides’ Aeolus. This 
told how Aeolus married his sons to his daughters and of the tragic 
consequences. Aeolus’ son Macareus raped his sister Canace and, in 
the hope of regularising the union, persuaded his father to distribute 
the brides by lot. Unfortunately, in the ballot Canace and Macareus 
were not drawn together, and Aeolus eventually discovered the rape. 
He sent Canace a sword, with which she committed suicide, ironically 
just before Macareus persuaded his father to pardon her; Macareus then 
killed himself in grief. Unfortunately, quite how the cook Sicon fitted 
into this is unclear. The fragments mention food several times, and one 
of them seems to comment on the facilities in the palace: ‘they have 
but one bedroom for them all and one bathtub serves them all’ (fr. 6) . 
On the basis of scenes with cooks in later comedy, one imagines that 
Sicon was an ill-tempered cook who has been engaged to provide the 
marriage-feast that is to celebrate the multiple marriages of sons and 
daughters, and who is unimpressed by the living arrangements of the 
house. In the comedy these are turned from Homer’s richness to comic 
meanness: epic decorum becomes comic bathos. Again, on the basis of 
weddings at the end of extant plays, one imagines that Macareus and 
Canace were somehow happily united at the end of the play. 


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The haul from a reading of the fragments is not therefore very 
great, though some glimmers have been seen. As we might expect, 
comedy exaggerated the more unusual aspects of the myths it used, 
banalised the stories, and emphasised any eating and drinking that could 
be brought into the stories. 

We have said that the extant plays are not mythological, but this 
does not mean that there is no mythology in them. Before looking at 
more structural uses of mythology, we will look at some of the ways in 
which mythology is used by characters in the plots. In tragedy, mythol- 
ogy is frequently used by choruses to give a perspective on the events 
of the play. This kind of use of myth is rare in Old Comedy. A pas- 
sage which comes close to this is the exchange in Lysistrata 781—828, 
where the Old Men say they wish to tell the Old Women a ‘story’ 
(, muthos ), and recount the story of Melanion, who fled to the country- 
side because of his hatred of women. The Women then reply with the 
tale of Timon, who hated men but loved women. These stories con- 
tinue the bantering rivalry between the two semi-choruses, but are odd 
in the way they seem to distort the stories. Melanion was famously the 
lover and conqueror of Atalanta; he did indeed stay in the countryside, 
but with Atalanta. Timon is not known to have had time for anyone, 
male or female, in the traditional versions. These distortions mirror the 
way in which Lysistrata will later distort history in her attempt to rec- 
oncile the two sides, recalling for instance Cimon’s help in bringing 
four thousand Athenian hoplites to assist Sparta against the Messenians: 
she sees this as a reason for the Spartans to make peace, but the hoplites 
were unceremoniously sent home and Thucydides says that the split 
between the Athenians and Spartans became overt after this expedi- 
tion (1.102.3). The point of these distortions in history and mythology 
would seem to be to indicate that peace between Athens and Sparta is, 
given past history, extremely difficult to achieve, and that the division 
between the sexes can only be maintained by falsely twisting traditional 

There are a number of occasions where mythology is used in more 
or less intellectual arguments, as a means ofpersuasion. The most notable 
example of this is Peisetaerus’ great speech in which he persuades the 
birds to follow his advice and set up their own kingdom, and the Chorus’ 
subsequent parody of Orphic cosmogony ( Birds 471-703). Peisetaerus 
turns to Aesop for proof that the lark was the first of birds and existed 
before the earth and the gods: their kingdom was the original one 
therefore and can justifiably be regenerated. The Chorus similarly go 
back to the start of time and the production of an egg from Erebus 


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Mytii in Aristophanes 

before the world existed; from this egg Eros was born, whose union 
with Chaos produced the race of birds. These cosmic origins give a 
suitably legendary grandeur to the idea of the kingdom of the birds and 
foreshadow the frighteningly powerful nature of Nephelococcygia. 

Otherwise, reference to mythology is not especially frequent in 
the mouths of comic characters, perhaps because it fits ill with the 
largely ‘everyday’ nature of comic life: it is suitable for the grand context 
in which Peisetaerus is speaking, but not otherwise. Perhaps it is for 
this reason that when, in Acharnians, Amphitheus gives the Assembly a 
convoluted mythological genealogy to justify his request for travelling 
expenses for a peace mission to Sparta, the Assembly is not in the least 
impressed and the officials immediately have him thrown out. 

One place where mythology does figure in a substantial passage 
is Clouds 1047—70, where the Worse Argument uses it in his refutation 
of the Better. This is thus another special context, one of intellectual 
debate. Better complains that current philosophical discourse ‘is filling 
the bath-houses and emptying the wrestling-schools’ (1052—4). In the 
dispute, he says hot baths are bad for the character, but Worse points 
out that no cold baths of Heracles are known. Sitting about discussing 
philosophy is also condemned, but Worse points to that skilled debater, 
the admirable Nestor in Homer. When Better himself tries to give 
an example of a mythical hero who benefited from his possession of 
virtue, he chooses unwisely and selects Peleus, who, he claims, was 
given a knife as a reward. Worse scorns this and Better notes that Peleus 
was also rewarded with marriage to Thetis, but Worse is easily able to 
refute him by reminding him that Thetis left Peleus, according to him 
because Peleus was no good in bed. Knowledge of mythology is not 
enough: one needs to be able to employ it in a sophisticated manner, 
so that this is another example in the play of how a lack of sophistic 
rhetorical skill can leave a man exposed. 

We can move now to discussion of comedy’s engagement with 
mythology on a broader scale. The first topic to consider is its relation- 
ship with tragic myth. Two comedies make very different use of myth, 
and specifically tragic myth, in the context of a juxtaposition of the two 
genres. They are Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae. In the former, the 
hero Dicaeopolis visits Euripides to find tragic garb sufficiently pathetic 
and affecting to enable him to defend before the hostile Chorus his deci- 
sion to make a private peace with Sparta. He chooses that of Telephus, 
who was a king of Mysia and son-in-law of Priam, and whose land was 
invaded by mistake by the Greeks on their way to Troy. Telephus was 
wounded by Achilles’ spear after he fell over a vine branch put in his way 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

by Dionysus, whom he had angered. The wound did not heal and an 
oracle told him that ‘the wounder will heal.’ Telephus in disguise went 
to Argos to seek Achilles, and made a speech in defence of the Trojans 
and probably of himself, saying at one point that he would speak out 
even if threatened with an axe. Odysseus announced the presence of a 
spy and to avoid seizure, Telephus grabbed the infant Orestes and ran to 
an altar for sanctuary, threatening to kill the child if he were mistreated. 
Eventually, Telephus revealed the way to Troy, and was healed by the 
rust from the spear of Achilles, thus fulfilling the oracle. 

In Acharnians, the Telephus myth has two functions. First, it is used 
to give ‘the moral authority, literary prestige, and latitude that audiences 
have always given to more prestigious genres ’ 18 and to claim for comedy 
the kind of usefulness and advice-giving capability that was accorded to 
tragedy: ‘comedy knows justice too’(50o), says Dicaeopolis, using the 
word trugodia, from the word for ‘wine-lees,’ as a parallel term to trago- 
dia. This prestige is then important, as Dicaeopolis tries to justify his 
making peace with Sparta in a speech to the Chorus of Acharnians, 
whose desire for war has been fired by the destruction of their crops. 
The adoption of a tragic garb for this scene should not, however, be 
interpreted simply as comedy’s deference to its more prestigious elder 
sibling: the prestige nominally offered by adoption of a tragic figure was 
presumably not a little mitigated by the heterogeneous sight on stage of 
a comic character with his padded clothing and phallus topped by the 
further garments of the tragic Telephus. This compound figure thus rep- 
resented king, beggar, Athenian, foreigner, and tragic and comic hero 
all in one, which enabled Aristophanes implicitly to pose ‘the question 
how seriously, how comically, how literally to take (the) play .’ 19 Comic 
political discourse adopts tragic myth’s prestige, but at the same time 
undermines it by the bizarrely mixed figure on the stage. 

But the Telephus story also has a much wider significance for the 
play as a whole, because its whole structure and plotline are imitated at 
various points by the comedy. The presence of Telephus is highlighted 
by the way he comes at the end of a list of Euripidean beggar-kings, 
but his tragedy has in fact been adumbrated before. When the Chorus 
of Acharnians will not listen to his justification of his private peace, 
Dicaeopolis says he will be willing to speak with his head on a butcher’s 
block, so that he may be executed if he does not persuade. This picks up 
Telephus’ lack of fear of any axe that might be used to silence him. In 
his great speech in response to the Chorus’ attack on him for his peace, 
Dicaeopolis makes much of his awareness that a mere beggar addressing 
the Athenians is potentially problematic, drawing on the rhetoric the 


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Euripidean figure used. In the early part of the play, therefore, Telephus’ 
main function is to increase the audience’s sympathy for Dicaeopolis, 
whom they are made to think of in terms not just of a citizen with a 
grievance against the belligerent city, but also of ill-treated but noble 
tragic heroes. When he has persuaded half of the Chorus, the other 
half call out the belligerent Lamachus, whom Dicaeopolis discomforts 
with his cheeky and disrespectful attitude. We seem to have the ‘little 
man,’ garbed in tragic pathos, triumphing over the powerful and violent 
representatives of the state, which has appeared inhumane and inflexible 
through the first part of the play. 

All of this changes in the second part of the play, however. 
Dicaeopolis gradually becomes a less sympathetic figure. That he will 
not give any of his treaty-wine, the symbol of his peace, to the slave 
of Lamachus is not perhaps surprising or disreputable, but the refusal 
to give it to a farmer who wants it to bathe his eyes that have become 
sore with weeping for the cattle he has lost in a Boeotian raid is more 
troubling. He then agrees to give some to anoint the cock of a Bride- 
groom so that he does not have to fight. This is all very amusing, but 
from the point of view of the defence of the city (i.e., what interests 
everyone but Dicaeopolis), it is not helpful. The Chorus eventually sum 
up Dicaeopolis’ position thus: ‘he’s working on his own behalf. . . but 
it doesn’t look as though he is going to share it with anyone’ (1017, 
I038f). The sympathy that was generated by the first part of the play 
for a man who was willing to stand up for his principles and for peace 
against the might of the polis gradually diminishes, as the selfishness of 
Dicaeopolis’ actions become ever clearer. 

This shift in sympathy is then clinched by return of motifs from the 
tragedy, when at the end the soldier Lamachus is brought in, wounded 
in driving off Boeotian invaders. Dicaeopolis, rather like Achilles in the 
tragedy, refuses to heal him with the treaty-wine, but unlike Achilles 
does not relent. Furthermore, it transpires that Lamachus has been 
‘wounded by a vine-prop as he leapt over a ditch’ (1178) and ‘struck 
down by an enemy’s spear’ (1194), that is, almost exactly as Telephus 
was wounded when the Greeks invaded his country. The most appro- 
priate cure for a wound from a vine-prop would be treaty-wine, but 
Dicaeopolis refuses. The sympathy-figure Telephus has thus migrated at 
the end of the play from Dicaeopolis to Lamachus, the unsympathetic 
figure of the end of the first half. This shift emphasises the way in which 
the audience are made to view Dicaeopolis in at least two ways: the rea- 
sonableness of his attitude to the city’s devotion to war is displayed in 
the first part, the selfishness of his response in the second. The mythical 

20 1 

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character from tragedy is thus a floating signifier which migrates from 
one character to the other, allowing us to construct them in different 

The Telephus returns fourteen years later, in the Thesmophoriazusae, 
along, as we have seen, with parody of other Euripidean tragedies. 
Where in the Acharnians tragedy and comedy were contrasted and yet 
also complemented each other in the economy of the play, here they 
are much more opposed to each other. The literary context of this play 
of 4 ii is the recent composition by Euripides of plays which, though 
officially tragedies, contained a good deal of comedy or potentially 
comic features. The Helen, for instance, made great play of the confusion 
between a phantom Helen and the real thing and contained a highly 
amusing scene between the shipwrecked Menelaus and an Old Woman 
at the doors of the palace. Such door-knocking scenes are much more a 
feature of Greek comedy at all times, and Menelaus’ concern at having to 
meet strangers in his ragged condition makes self-referential play with 
Euripides’ supposed fondness for ragged kings, which we met in the 
discussion of Acharnians above. Ion contains a hymn by the boy Ion in 
which he laments the effects of bird-droppings in the sacred space, and 
Andromeda contained a scene with the figure ofEcho. Thesmophoriazusae 
seems to be Aristophanes’ reply to this move into comic territory, since 
he responds to Euripides’ putting of comedy into tragedy by creating 
his comedy out of tragedies. After the prologue, we meet the tragedian 
Agathon, and the plot then develops through four plays of Euripides, as 
he tries to find ways, through imitation of his ‘escape’ plays, to free his 
relative, traditionally known as Mnesilochus, from the clutches of the 
women at the Thesmophoria festival. The informing idea throughout 
is comedy’s superiority, in a variety of areas, to tragedy as a dramatic 
medium. Thus, in the Agathon scene, tragedy’s fragility in the face 
of robust comic language is made clear. In revisiting the comic scene 
of Menelaus at the palace door, Aristophanes achieves the remarkably 
difficult feat of parodying an already comic scene, as if to say, ‘if you 
want a truly funny scene, then it is to comedy you should turn, not 
tragedy.’ In this scene, the Old Woman refuses to play her role as the 
Old Woman in Euripides’ version of Menelaus’ myth, so that Euripides’ 
and Mnesilochus’ attempts to act out the tragic version of the myth are 
constantly frustrated and ultimately collapse. The implication is that 
tragedy is a frail medium which cannot tolerate the refusal of spectators 
to suspend belief and accept that what they are seeing is a mythical 
drama and not real life: anything that gets in the way of this spoils it as 
drama. Comedy, however, can accommodate anything: as the tragedy 


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collapses in the face of incredulity by the Old Woman, the comedy is 
succeeding famously. 

All of this takes place in the context of the women’s festival, the 
Thesmophoria. The myth of that festival was the rape by Hades of 
Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, her mother’s search for her, and the 
suspension of agricultural fertility in the world until Persephone was 
returned. The pattern of the festival replicated the myth. It began with 
the separation of husband and wife and the assumption by the women 
of roles in politics, religion, and sexuality normally held by men: the 
normal world was thus inverted. On the altar were placed the rotted 
remains of piglets, which had earlier been thrown into underground 
pits; these were to be mixed with the seed-corn to promote fertility in 
humans and crops. On the second day, the women then imitated the 
primitive existence led by the goddess when her daughter was lost and 
the goddess’s search for her. On the final day, husband and wife were 
reunited and dined off roast pork, in contrast to the rotten pork of day 
one: the world was thus restored to normality. 

The play makes use of this pattern of abnormality replaced by 
normality, found in the myth of the festival and in the festival itself. 
In the play, Euripides has introduced two abnormalities: his tragedies 
have come to concern themselves with the private lives of women in 
Athens, a private sphere that does not belong on the public stage; and 
they have strayed onto comic space, thus confusing the two genres. 
This abnormality is righted in two ways: at the end of the play, the 
price of the freedom of his relative Mnesilochus is that Euripides will 
no longer write plays which slander women; and by this time, the play 
has amply demonstrated comedy’s superiority to Euripidean tragedy in 
the blending of tragic and comic. The comedy thus has (allegedly) the 
same benefit to the city as the Thesmophoria, in that it restores tragedy 
and comedy to their rightful places. It is comedy too which claims to 
offer a much clearer guide to the secret behaviour of women in the 
privacy of the oikos than tragedy with its myths. 

This imitation of the patterns of myth and its related festivals is a 
frequent feature of Old Comedy, often in unexpected places. In Lysis- 
trata, for instance, once the women have barricaded themselves into 
the Acropolis, the Chorus of Old Men attack the gates, bringing with 
them fire to burn the Women out. In a scene of burlesqued combat, the 
Women eventually douse the Men’s flames with a ‘nuptial bath.’ Though 
the sight of two aged semi-choruses fighting it out might seem farci- 
cal and undignified, the scene is given a much greater seriousness and 
importance by the myths that underlie it, as Faraone has shown . 20 These 


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are of two kinds. First, there are myths in which women are threatened 
with death by burning, as happened to Alcmene when she was discov- 
ered by her husband Amphitryon to be pregnant with Heracles, or to 
Heracles’ own wife Megara at the start of Euripides’ Heracles. In such 
stories, the women are victims of violent males, as are the women in 
Lysistrata when viewed through this schema. Second, there are stories 
where it is men who are threatened with such a death, but who are 
saved by women bringing water to quench the flames. This is the case 
for Dionysus, when his mother Semele is blasted by the sight of Zeus 
in all his glory. Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ plays on this subject are both 
entitled Hydrophoroi, ‘The Water-Carriers,’ a reference to the women 
who doused the flames and saved the child Dionysus. Similarly, there 
are a number of depictions on vases of Heracles’ death, in which there 
remains on the pyre the armour of the hero, but he himself is depicted 
taken up to heaven; at the side of this scene, women are depicted with 
jars, from which they are pouring water onto the pyre. 

This apparently farcical scene therefore evokes two schemata 
which endue it with greater significance than its farcical nature might 
suggest. The first figures the women as victims, but the second suggests 
that it is they who are bringing salvation to the city. The dousing of 
the old men is comic, but also, through the evocation of the mythical 
stories, is much more important. It is indeed a ‘nuptial bath,’ in that in 
mythology a bath is often a new start, a purging of an old status and the 
adoption of a new, as we shall see in the next example. 

In some cases, a whole play may be structured along the lines of a 
myth or myth-type. This is so with Knights, where the struggle of the 
Sausage-Seller to overthrow the Paphlagonian slave, the dominant force 
in Demos’ household, is comically represented as a Gigantomachy, or 
Battle against a Giant: the allegedly violent and domineering politician 
Cleon is farcically figured as a monstrous being on a par with Typhoeus, 
the monster whom Zeus had to defeat to become master of the universe. 
The pattern of the play is generally that of Gigantomachies, but it is also 
very close to the Titanomachy in Hesiod’s Theogony. The victories in 
each case come at the end of a ‘succession-myth’ in which, in Hesiod, 
the sequence is Uranus— Cronus— Zeus; in Aristophanes, hemp-seller— 
sheep-seller— leather-seller— sausage-seller. In each case, an oracle is cru- 
cial and the victor has helpers, the Hundred-Handers in Zeus’ case, the 
Knights in the Sausage-Seller’s. In Hesiod, the rivals fight on a cosmic 
scale, with lightning and thunder, and the imagery of the play is simi- 
larly shot through with such ideas. Furthermore, in the parabasis, when 
seeking approval for his work, Aristophanes evokes this Gigantomachy 


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in his claim that he is worthy to ask for the audiences help because 
‘he goes out bravely against the whirlwind and the hurricane’ (510— 
11 ). Once the victory is won, the losers are dispatched to disagreeable 
places, Typhoeus to Tartarus and the Paphlagonian to drink bath water 
in the Ceramicus among the lowlifes. The victory is then marked by 
figures allegorical of the newly created world: Zeus creates the Seasons, 
Peace, Good Government, and so on, and the Sausage-Seller intro- 
duces the Peace Treaties (, Spondai ) and symbolically boiles Demos to 
recreate him as he was in the great days of the past. Much of the com- 
edy comes therefore from the gap between the squalid and squabbling 
slaves of the play and the grandeur of the victory of the king of the gods. 
Aristophanes also associates himself with his hero, through the image of 
the hurricane quoted above, so again the idea of the comic poet con- 
fronting the leading politician of his day is characterised hyperbolically 
as a Gigantomachy. 

When Aristophanes wrote this play, he was barely more than 
twenty and, as in other plays, it is possible to find another pattern in 
Knights, in this case that of the young man undertaking various exploits 
that result in his attaining adult status, the myth of ‘rite of passage,’ as 
seen in the stories of Theseus or Jason. The nameless Sausage-Seller is 
young and at the very margins of society, selling cheap meats by the 
city gates in the insalubrious Ceramicus region, and finally takes his 
place as prostates of Demos, with the honorific name of Agoracritus. 
The importance of these patterns is then suggested by the way that, in 
a play such as Wasps, the pattern can be reversed, so that a mature male 
can become a young man again. Again, some of the humour for the 
original audience comes from seeing a familiar pattern reversed. The 
play concerns an old, poor, and nearly senile man who is obsessed with 
jury-service and dedicated to condemnation of the accused, and who is 
gradually weaned off this obsession and turned to the pleasures of the life 
of a rich young aristocrat. In the first part of the play, instead of gaining 
status as the young mythical hero does, Philocleon gradually loses it, 
starting as juror and being reduced to ‘nothing.’ This is done paradoxi- 
cally by taking him through the pattern of a rite of passage. At the start 
of the play, he is associated with the imagery of marginality associated 
with the young hero in mythology: hunting-nets, night, animals, and 
the use of trickery. When he and his fellow- Wasps fight against his son 
and their slaves, the imagery become that of the hoplite, the mature 
male. Finally, he debates with his son on the true nature of his life as a 
juror, a profession which, in this play, is largely associated with old men. 
In each case, Philocleon is defeated in a contest and finally submits to 


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his son’s wish that he abandon the courts. His son then trains him in 
how to behave in a symposium, where his ultimate behaviour is no less 
chaotic and disruptive than it was in the courts. 

The implication of this could thus be that the Attic spirit, whether 
manifest in law-court or symposium, is largely uncontrollable. The play 
in fact counterbalances the negative aspects of this spirit with more 
positive ones: these were the men who defeated the Persians and they 
are the ones who now (the concern for chronological precision is small) 
defend the city in its courts. The use of the reverse rite-of-passage myth 
can thus be seen to be not just an amusing move, but also an indication 
of the unnatural nature of what Bdelycleon is trying to achieve. In 
fact, matters are more complex. That the senile Philocleon should give 
up public life and settle down at home has a certain sense to it (and 
would have been required by Attic law), but then Philocleon is one 
of those complex Aristophanic characters 21 who manage to combine 
contradictory aspects in themselves. Again however, Philocleon is still 
possessed of a vigour that can defend the city, so that his removal from 
that sphere is questionable. Reversing the pattern of the myth is thus 
rendered problematic and even antidemocratic, as Philocleon himself 

We end with consideration of two plays in which we can dis- 
cern an awareness of the way in which mythology functions and of its 
dangers. First, Lysistmta. The standard view of the sexes in Greek, and 
indeed other, mythology is that the woman is the source of danger, 
strife, and disruption in society, whereas the man is the opposite. What 
is striking about Lysistmta is that, in this myth of gynaecocracy (the rule 
of women) Aristophanes reverses the negative and positive signs nor- 
mally attached to women and men. In other stories of women taking 
control, they often do so in the context of the murder of their husbands. 
For instance, on Lemnos, there was a festival that commemorated and 
imitated the story of how the women of the island were punished by 
Aphrodite for a misdemeanour: they smelled so much that their hus- 
bands sought solace elsewhere, and were murdered for it. 22 In the play, 
however, the occupation of the Acropolis is carried out by trickery, and 
the women otherwise for the most part sit quietly on Athena’s rock. The 
men associate their actions with those of the Lemnians (296—301) and 
Amazons (676-9), but these evocations of traditionally violent mythi- 
cal women are quite inappropriate to the behaviour of the women. By 
contrast, it is the men who offer violence to the women, by bringing 
Athena’s own olive-wood against her doors, filling the market-place 
with frightening soldiers, and behaving violently when drunk (i2i6ff); 


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it is men, after all, who have caused the war, and who in the play 
justify their actions by harping proudly on the violent events which 
surrounded the overthrow ofHippias’ tyranny and on the ‘myth’ of the 
Persian Wars. Indeed, the men constantly refer to these violent historical 
events, whereas the women refer much more to their religious service 
to the city. By taking myth and reversing the signs it uses, Aristophanes 
produces ‘reality,’ thus deconstructing the ideology of myth which pur- 
veys an ideologically biased picture of society. 

This unmasking of the constructed nature of mythology is also 
found in Birds and Ecclesiazusae. If Aristophanes’ extant plays do not 
use mythology except in a structural fashion, their plots are in a way 
‘myths’ themselves. This is especially true of plays such as these two, 
which tell of the creation of a fantasy city: ‘Cloud-Cuckoo-Land’ leads 
a list that includes ‘Shangri-La,’ ‘Utopia,’ and the ‘Pays de Cocagne’ as 
stereotypical of fantasy lands. In Birds, the origin of the bird-kingdom 
is found in the two Athenians’ desire to find a land without ‘problems’ 
(pragmata) . It has often been thought a problem in the play that this desire 
should turn into the decision to found an imperial city like Nephelo- 
coccygia, but this is the point the play makes: the only way to avoid 
pragmata is to be powerful enough to ward them off and impose them 
on others. It is precisely this lack of pragmata, this apragmosune, a word 
that means noninvolvement in affairs, which Peisetaerus blames for the 
birds’ current servile condition (471): once they take the trouble, they 
become kings of the universe again. In other words, the play demon- 
strates the impossibility of achieving a peaceful existence by absenting 
oneself from affairs: the two Athenians at the start of the play are in an 
unknown place, a place detached from the real world, but even here 
they are shown paradoxically to be able to achieve anything approach- 
ing a trouble-free existence only by becoming great rulers. This is often 
said to be Aristophanes’ most fantasy-filled play, but its myth in fact 
rejects any cosy notion that the fulfilment of such fantasies of ease is 
possible and hints that such fantasies are dangerous. It could be argued 
that the universe is a less pleasant place for all but the rulers by the end 
of the play than it was at the beginning, when the problems were the 
not very great ones of constant court-action and fines (39-41). At the 
same time, the story also provides a justification for imperial ambitions. 
Nephelococcygia is thus, like all myths, ‘good to think with’: it prompts 
reflection on fantasies of apragmosune, and at the same time on the kind 
of empire that Athens currently possessed. 

The utopian agenda again comes under scrutiny in Ecclesiazusae, 
Aristophanes’ penultimate extant play. Here, as in Lysistrata, the women 


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set up a gynaecocracy, though this time it is one that is to endure, not 
be abolished when it has achieved its aim as in the earlier play. Not only 
do the women relieve the men of the need to trouble themselves with 
politics, but they turn the polis into a giant oikos, in which the men 
will be entertained for all time to sympotic pleasures. At first sight, this 
might seem a paradise, with signs of rejuvenation and much feasting, 
but on closer scrutiny the fantastic new laws, such as the one that says 
the beautiful must satisfy the old and ugly before the equally beautiful, 
turn out to produce horrors. The scene where a handsome young man 
is passed from one aged and disfavoured woman to another even less 
favoured one seems to justify the remark of one of the characters that 
there has been created ‘a land of Oedipuses’ (1040—2). The possible 
results of a retreat into mythical fantasies that societies can be simply 
improved are set out as a warning of such fantasies. 

The absence of mythological comedy in the remains of Old Com- 
edy is thus something to be regretted, but mythology’s structures and 
meanings are still to be seen in our extant plays, as is an awareness of 
the dangers of too uncritical or simplistic an acceptance of what some 
myths may convey. 

Suggested Works for Further Reading 

Bowie 1 993: a structuralist reading of the comedies through their use of reference to, or 
the patterns of, myth and ritual. 

Bowie 2000: a discussion of what can be gleaned about the use of myth and ritual in 
the fragments which survive of lost fifth-century comedies. 

Faraone 1997: a discussion of the use of myths of salvation from burning in the interplay 
of genders in Lysistrata. 

Lada-Richards, 1999: a full-scale literary, anthropological and cultural study of Frogs, 
with particular attention to how membership of fifth-century Athenian society 
would have shaped interpreation of the play. 

Martin 1987: how the Lemnian festival of New Fire and its concomitant myth of the 
destruction and re-constitution of Lemnian society can illuminate meanings of the 

Nesselrath 1990: a historical account of the use of mythology in the fragmentary plays 
of fourth-century comedy. 

Nesselrath 1995: on the parody of myth in comedy. 


1 For earlier work on this topic, cf. Moessner 1907; Cornford 1914; Hofmann 197 6; 
Bowie 1993 (the reader is referred generally to this book on the extant plays of 
Aristophanes; reference on individual points or plays is not given in these notes), 
1997, 2000; Nesselrath 1995; Carriere 1997: 413-42; Riu 1999. 


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Myth in Aristophanes 

2 The figure for Old Comedy is 125 plays that could fall into this category out of 
just under 400 known titles. 

3 On which see Nesselrath 1990: 188-241. 

4 On Dionysalexandrus , cf. most recently, Revermann 1997. 

5 Cf. also Aristophanes’ Frogs and Dionysus Shipwrecked; Eupolis’ Taxiarchs, where 
he is taught military tactics, and the apparently similar Aristomenes’ Dionysus in 
Training; the two plays entitled Birth of Dionysus by Demetrius and Polyzelus; 
Cratinus Dionysus and his Companions and so on. 

6 For an account of satyr-plays, cf. Seaford 1984: 1-59. 

7 Also in Cypria, fr. 9 Bernabe. 

8 Platonius, diff. com. 1 . 51-2, p. 5K; cf. K-A Odysses T i. 

9 On the political content of Old Comedy, cf. Schwarze 1971. 

10 Cf. Cratinus, frr. 73, 118, 258; Telecleides, fr. 18; Ar. Ach. 530. 

11 Helen: Eupolis, Prospaltioi fr. 267; Hera: Cratinus, Cheirons fr. 259; Deianeira: fr. 
adesp. 704; Omphale: Plut. Peric. 24.9, PI. Menex. 235E. 

12 Apart from Theseus, Attic myths are not very common in tragedy, either: we 
find, for instance, the Triptolemus by Sophocles, the Erechtheus of Euripides, and 
a ‘Pandion tetralogy’ by Philocles (TrGF 24 T 6c, F 1); Cecrops, for instance, 
does not appear. Fragmentary plays about Medea may have concerned her time in 
Athens, but we cannot tell. 

13 We find Erechtheus and Aegeus only once, summoned as witnesses, it seems, 
rather than as characters in the play (cf. Ar. Banqueters, fr. 217), Pericles as Buzyges 
(Eupolis, Demes fr. 103), and very sporadic mentions of other Athenian heroes, 
again not as characters. 

14 Fr. 53; cf. Hipp. 219-22. 

15 Cf. Martin 1987. 

16 Fr. 47 = Phoen. 460-1; fr. 48-546. 

17 A tantalising fragment, probably of Old Comedy, which discusses tragedy and may 
date from this time is studied by Bierl 1990. 

18 Cf. Foley 1988; see in general 43-7. 

19 Goldhill 1991: 201; see in general 167-201. 

20 Cf. Faraone 1997. 

21 Silk 2000: 207-55. 

22 Cf. n.15 above, and Ephorus, FGrH 70 F 60a, for another example. 


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6: Plato Philomythos 

Diskin Clay 


The devotee of myth is in a way a philosopher, for myth is made 
up of things that cause wonder. 

Aristotle, Metaphysics i.982 1 T8— 19 

The Myth of Logos vs. Mythos 

T he luxuriant varieties of definitions of Greek “myth” are a 
symptom of the remoteness of our culture from the culture of 
ancient Greece. We have no real equivalent for the traditional 
stories and histories that circulated among the Greeks (and Romans) 
concerning their origins, the origins of their world, their gods and the 
progeny of their gods, the relation between humans and animals, and the 
fate awaiting mortals after death. The term myth now carries a pejorative 
sense in modern languages, as is evident from the use of the word in 
titles such as Wilhelm Nestles Votn Mythos zum Logos: Die Selbstentfaltung 
des griechischen Denkens (1941) or Ernst Cassirers The Myth of the State 
(1946), to name only two philosophical titles from the middle of the last 
century. 1 In Homer, mythos is a word that describes something said in the 
epic. But already in Herodotus the word mythos had come to describe an 
idle and unbelievable tale. The tradition concerning Oceanus and the 
Greek traditions concerning Heracles are cases in point; both are mythoi 
(. Histories 2.23.1 and 2.45.1). Yet Herodotus’ predecessor, Hecataeus of 
Miletus, can describe his own history as a mythos (FGrH 1 F 1 Jacoby) 
and, conversely traditional but misleading historical accounts as logoi. 
In the age of Socrates, the philosopher Empedocles, who wrote in epic 
verse, could use the Homeric term mythos for his own philosophical 
arguments and religious teachings. 2 Thucydides rejected what he called 
the poets’ “tendency to myth” (to mythodes. The Peloponnesian War 1 .21), 

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but, in his narrative of speeches made in assemblies and the facts on the 
ground, logoi were often the equivalent of myths. He constructs his 
history of the Peloponnesian War on the fatal contrast between what 
men say and the underlying reality of their situation. 3 Much later Strabo 
will distinguish between two radically different forms of writing: that 
presented “in guise of myth” and that presented “in guise of history.” 4 

Plato, whose hostility toward poetry was notorious in antiquity, 
as it is now, would seem to be an enemy of myth, but his Socrates, who 
comes forward as the fiercest enemy of poetry in the Platonic dialogues, 
was captivated by Aesop and his myths. At the end of his life, in response 
to a recurring dream vision admonishing him to “become musical,” 
Socrates took to setting Aesopian fables (usually called ainoi) into verse. 
Socrates calls them mythoi ( Phaedo 60-C-D) . How instructive it would 
be for humans, the possessors of logos, to speak with animals is evident in 
Plato’s Statesman 272B, a scene beautifully illustrated by the red-figure 
kylix in the Vatican showing a fox instructing Aesop (Figure 1). 

Plato bears a likeness to his Socrates. He would seem to qual- 
ify as the philosophical devotee of myth (the philomythos as philosophos ) 
Aristotle describes in Metaphysics A. Or, perhaps, the order should be 
reversed to describe him as the philosopher devoted, not so much to 
traditional myths of his Greek culture, but to the creation of new myths 
to counter the charm of the old. Because of the deliberate ambigu- 
ity he has created in his dialogues as to what constitutes a mythos and 
what qualifies as a logos, Plato has contributed to our modern confusion 
over what can be described as a “myth.” But, as he sometimes etches 
a sharp contrast between mythos and logos, he has also contributed to 
the common conception of Greek thought as evolving from the tradi- 
tional, anonymous, and personified aetiologies of early Greek thinking 
to rational, logical, and “scientific” thought. In the Gorgias, for example, 
Plato has his Socrates give an account of the last judgment that awaits all 
humans in death, a possibility Socrates entertains briefly at the end of 
Plato’s Apology (40C-1C). His interlocutor, the tough realist Callicles, 
will, Socrates thinks, regard his account as a fable (mythos); but what he 
will describe is in fact a noble and true account (logos) of reality (Gor- 
gias 523 A). The distinction does not hold. Elsewhere in Plato, what we 
would regard as his seriously meant truth is often treated as a mythos, 
and fictions, based on traditional accounts, are called logoi. 

To approach the topic of Plato and myth, a fast definition of Greek 
“myth” is neither necessary nor possible. Our topic involves both the 
criticism of traditional Greek myths in the Platonic dialogues and the 
nontraditional “myths” that Plato created to replace what had become 

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traditional. In many cases, his own language allows us to determine what 
he regarded as a mythos, but a shift in perspective can make a mythos of 
a logos and a logos of a mythos. As we approach what have long counted 
in the census of Platonic “myths,” 5 it should be noted that they are 
often based on a traditional story and that they correct this story by 
substituting a philosophical version of it. Thus, they tend to describe a 
supernatural reality or a reality that transcends our human experience 
but that our experience can give us some inkling of: that is, what lies 
hidden in the present, the remote past, and what awaits the human 
soul in the future. These Platonic myths are usually attributed to an 
anonymous oral source; they cannot be confirmed or falsified, except 
by someone who has had the experience of these realities, such as the 
fictional Er of the myth ofEr in the Republic or the “heralds” responsible 
for our faint memory of the Golden Age, who lived on the “cusp” of 
the great periodic reversals of time in the myth of the Statesman (27 iA). 

It has been said that myth died in Plato’s youth. 6 It did not. Of 
all Greek philosophers, Plato is the most mythopoeic. For some of his 
myths he (meaning his Socrates) creates a philosophical counterpart to 
traditional poetic accounts of origins, as he does in the Republic (3 .414B- 
4 15 D), where he offers a myth of the metals to counter and supplant Hes- 
iod’s “myth of the metals” in Works and Days (109-201). In the “Great 
Myth” of the Statesman, Plato’s visitor from Velia will connect and rec- 
oncile scattered and unrelated Greek oral traditions (268D-274E). His 
Socrates offers a striking version of the Underworld at the conclusion of 
the Republic (10.514A— 517A). Plato designs it to supplant the Homeric 
book of the dead ( Nekuia ) in Odyssey 11. Myth, meaning the false or 
misleading traditions transmitted orally and anonymously in Greek cul- 
ture, is often dismissed in the Platonic dialogues, but never simply as 
myth ( mythos ) . Whether a narrative is called mythos or logos depends on 
the viewpoint of the teller of the tale (usually Socrates) and his audience. 
As Plato criticizes Greek myth and as he invents his own countermyths, 
his reader is confronted with constantly shifting perspectives. The old 
wives’ tales ( mormolykeia ) of punishment in the afterlife are dismissed 
by Socrates as figments that instill fear in young children, who have no 
capacity forjudging them. But in his own “myths of judgment” he has 
his own terrifying prediction of the fate that awaits the evil in death. 7 

A passage in the Platonic dialogues that reveals Plato’s philosophical 
ambivalence toward myth comes at the opening of the Phaedrus, the 
dialogue that provides us with the best clue to the meaning of myth in 
Plato. Socrates and his companion, Phaedrus, have left the city of Athens 
for the Attic countryside in mid-August. As they ascend the stream of 

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the Ilissus, Phaedrus asks Socrates if the place they had reached was not 
the site where Boreas, the god of the North Wind, had carried off the 
young Athenian princess, Oreithyia ( Phaedrus 229B— 230A). Socrates, 
who pretends that he is a tourist to the Attic countryside, has already 
noticed an altar to Boreas downstream. Phaedrus asks him if he believes 
in such traditional tales ( Phaedrus 229A). Socrates remains noncommital. 
It is better, he says, to accept these tales than to take on the task of the 
intellectuals ( sophoi ) who give a laborious and rational explanation of 
such stories. That is: Boreas was not a god but the North Wind, and a 
gust of wind pushed Oreithyia off a cliff, either above the Ilissus or from 
the outcropping of the Areopagus. By this interpretation, the sophists 
remove the gods as active in human life; only the human actors remain. 
In the myths he tells in the Platonic dialogues Socrates never fails to 
invoke the gods. 

Socrates adds a detail not recognized in Greek iconography: Boreas 
assaulted Oreithyia as she was playing with the nymph Pharmacea (the 
nymph of drugs and medicine). The subject of Boreas and Oreithyia 
appears on Greek vases, 8 but Pharmacea is Plato’s invention. These 
legendary figures evoked by the divine powers present in the Attic 
countryside are deep down Plato’s images of the conflict of Boreas 
(represented by the orator Lysias) and Socrates (as Pharmacea) for the 
soul of Phaedrus (cast as Oreithyia). This seemingly casual moment in 
the Phaedrus is symptomatic of Plato’s simultaneous dismissal and use of 
Greek myth. His Socrates tells Phaedrus that he is not concerned with 
creatures such as centaurs, chimaeras, gorgons, and winged horses such 
as Pegasus ( Phaedrus 229C); yet he invents a countermyth by inventing an 
image of the tripartite soul as a winged driver directing a chariot drawn 
by two winged horses (Phaedrus 246A-257A) 9 (an image reinterpreted 
in the frieze of the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano and shown on 
the medallion in the bust of the young man attributed to Donatello 
now in the Bargello Museum of Florence; see Figure 2). 10 This long 
description of the life and progress of the soul in another world Socrates 
calls a mythos, but he also presents it as a logos (Phaedrus 253 C). 

Plato’s real quarrel is not with Greek myth; it is with the poetry 
of the Greek polis and its false and debasing representations of real- 
ity. For this reason poets and myth are often associated in his dia- 
logues, as is the case of the Hesiodic tradition of Uranus being cas- 
trated by his son Cronus, the first of the poetic lies condemned in 
the Republic .° Like Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570— c. 478), the first 
philosopher to criticize Homer’s portrayal of the gods, Plato rejected 
the mythological tales concerning the gods that Herodotus saw as being 

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codified by Hesiod (first) and then Homer ( Histories 2.53; cf. Republic 
2.377D). Creatures such as the titans, giants, and centaurs, Xenophanes 
called the “fabrications of the ancients” ( plasmata ton proteron, DK 21 
B 1. 20-24). 

But Plato is himself a fabricator, true to the etymology his name 
suggested to his Greek readers. Platon (in Greek) was rightly taken to 
suggest platton, the fabricator. 12 His Socrates, who was willing to accept 
Greek myths and was concerned to avoid becoming a raging giant like 
Typhon ( Phaedrus 230A), offers Phaedrus at the end of the Phaedrus a 
“tradition of the ancients” ( akoen . . . ton proteron, Phaedrus 274C-275B) 
in his strange tale of Theuth and Thamus. As Socrates confronts the 
poetic accounts of the gods in the Republic, he seizes on the tradition 
that the gods can disguise themselves in human or animal form. He 
sternly rejects any such possibility. The gods, who need nothing, have 
no need of movement or of becoming something other than what they 
are. They are content (2.380C-381E). Yet, the metamorphosis of the 
human into other forms of life after death is an essential theme of 
Platonic eschatology. 13 

Plato’s myths offer countercharms to the traditions of Greek cul- 
ture. The term “countercharm” is Plato’s own. It describes arguments of 
the Platonic dialogues as the philosophical incantation that will free their 
hearers from the charm of traditional poetry ( Republic 10.608A). They 
resemble Greek myths in that they all involve the marvelous (to thau- 
maston ), the unknown, and the “transhuman” (to adapt Dante’s word 
trasumanar in Paradiso 1.70). They connect humans with the divine and 
our world with a world that lies outside human ken. It is indifferent 
whether they are called mythoi or logoi. But their position and func- 
tion within a Platonic dialogue has a bearing on their meaning. The 
placement of the so-called myths of judgment 14 at or near the end of 
the dialogue whose argument they seem to close - if not conclude - is 
symptomatic of the fact that the argument of the dialogue has reached 
an impasse. Socrates can bring his interlocutors no further by argument. 
This is true of the myths that come at the end of the arguments of the 
Gorgias, Phaedo, and Republic. 

In the Gorgias, the bitter debate between Socrates and Callicles, 
who has taken the part of Gorgias, has ended in a stalemate. Callicles, 
who has maintained with great skill and energy the position that justice is 
by nature the interest of the more powerful, remains utterly unconvinced 
by Socrates’ argument that it is better to be the victim of injustice than 
to commit injustice. At the end — but not conclusion of the dialogue — 
he is confronted with the prospect of the three judges of Hades, Minos, 

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Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus, who will judge him naked in death for any 
acts of injustice he has committed ( Gorgias 522E— 527E). 

In the Phaedo, Socrates has concluded a series of three arguments 
for the immortality of the soul. The subject of the survival of the soul has 
a crucial bearing on the dialogue, since, after he has made his arguments, 
Socrates will be executed and his arguments tested. But his interlocu- 
tors, the Pythagoreans, Simmias and Cebes of Thebes, who should be 
sympathetic to the belief in the immortality of the soul, are not yet 
quite convinced by his arguments. Their persistent doubts shift the 
argument of the dialogue into Socrates’ account of the “true earth” 
and the lower reaches of Tartarus where the souls of the wicked are 
punished after death ( Phaedo 108C-115A). This is the single Platonic 
myth that reveals the “hidden present.” Then follows Phaedo of Elis’s 
description of Socrates’ death ( Phaedo 115B-118A). In the Republic, the 
Myth of Er comes as the unexpected sequel to the equally unexpected 
argument for the immortality of the soul in book 10 (614A— 621D). 
The myth brings to an end a long day’s conversation on the meaning 
of justice in the state and the individual soul that Socrates has taken 
the responsibility for directing, assisted by the usually obliging assent of 
Plato’s two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus. The notion that the soul 
is immortal astounds Glaucon ( Republic 10.608D), but he has nothing 
to say at the end of the dialogue. 

These myths ofjudgment are “eschatological” in two senses. They 
give us a glimpse of a future that we must remain ignorant of in this life 
and they come at the end of a dialogue. They are, literally, “last things.” 
The syntax of an argument for the immortality of the soul followed by a 
myth can be found at the middle of the Phaedrus, where Socrates’ tight 
syllogistic argument for the soul’s immortality is followed immediately 
by a “myth” of the discarnate experience of the soul, pictured as a 
winged charioteer directing a chariot driven by two winged horses 
(245C-246A, 246A-257A). 

Parables of the Past: Plato’s 
“Just So” Stories 

The Platonic myths of the past are, like many Greek myths, “aetiologi- 
cal.” That is, they explain the present state of things by the past. There 
are more of these in the Platonic dialogues than myths of the future. 
They occur in the Protagoras, the Symposium, Phaedrus, Statesman, and 
Timaeus/ Critias (a single dialogue) . They all have a philosophical moral, 

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but they are quite unlike the “myths of judgment” in that they look 
back to the past not to subdue Plato’s readers to virtue but to give 
them a sense of a history that had conditioned or could condition their 
lives. Five of these are told by characters in the dialogues other than 
Socrates: Protagoras (in the Protagoras); Aristophanes and Diotima (in 
the Symposium); the Eleatic Stranger (in the Statesman); and Critias (in 
the Timaeus/ Critias). By contrast, all the myths of judgment are told 
by Socrates. Some of these myths of the prehistory of mankind have 
been taken with enormous seriousness. The myth of Protagoras has 
been seized on as evidence for this great thinker’s lost treatment of 
“The Earliest Condition of Mankind,” and Critias’ recollection of an 
ancient Athenian tradition concerning the defeat of the island nation 
of Atlantis by prehistoric Athens has let a djinni escape from the bottle 
and produced the wisp of the lost continent of Atlantis. 15 

Protagoras ( the Protagoras) 

Let us begin with the myth of the Protagoras (320C-323D). It is directed 
to the young, like the myth of the Statesman, which is addressed to 
the young Socrates (268D). Like many of his contemporary sophists, 
Protagoras was interested in reshaping Greek traditions. 16 In response 
to the question the then young Socrates puts to him, Is virtue (arete) 
something that can be taught? Protagoras offers a story illustrating his 
contention that all humans possess some sense of civic virtue to suggest 
that it can. He offers a mythos, a term he contrasts with the argument 
he will then offer Socrates (the logos that follows in 323 A— 328D). Given 
his audience of young men gathered in the house of Callias, Socrates, 
the young Hippocrates, Alcibiades, and Phaedrus (among others), this 
older intellectual ( sophistes ) from Abdera in Thrace chooses to tell a 
story (320C). His Promethean myth of how mankind learned the “art” 
of justice and living amicably in civil society concludes in the argu- 
ment he describes as a logos (328D). How are the two phases of his 
speech different? The simple answer is that his myth deals with Zeus, 
Prometheus, and Epimetheus and the creation of mankind; his argument 
concerns contemporary Athens and contemporary Athenians. Protago- 
ras begins his story with the formula: “There was once a time when the 
gods existed, but the races of mortal creatures did not” (320D). Aristo- 
phanes will begin his speech in the Symposium in the same manner. Like 
many of the myths in the Platonic dialogues, the myth of the Protagoras 
has two distinguishing features: it is a “just so story” and at the same time 
a Platonic myth designed to counter and usurp the traditions familiar 

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to his contemporaries. Here we encounter the myth of the creation of 
the human race by the gods that we find in Hesiod and other sources 
(and reflected in Statesman 274A) of how fire was fundamental to the 
development of human civilization. A short version of the story reads 
like this (Protagoras 320C— 322D): 

There was once a time when the races of mortal creatures did 
not exist, only the gods. The gods created the human race 
out of fire and earth, but the new race remained within the 
earth. To Prometheus the gods assigned the task of providing 
animals and human kind with the capacities suited to them. 

But Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, asked to take that 
role and leave his brother to judge the results. Unfortunately, 
Epimetheus began his distribution of the means of survival 
with animals and had nothing left for humans. On the day 
the new human race was to emerge into the light of day, 
Prometheus stole fire from heaven to assure the survival of 
vulnerable humans. Fire made burnt offerings to the gods 
possible, and only humans worship the gods. At first, they 
did not live in communities; they came to establish cities 
to protect themselves from wild animals. Yet they did not 
possess an art of civilized living until they learned the virtues 
of living in society. In his prudential fear of their extinction, 

Zeus sent Hermes down to them to convey from heaven 
a sense of justice (dike) and mutual respect (aidos). Hermes 
asked if he should distribute these divine gifts to all humans. 

Zeus replied “to all.” 

Protagoras’ myth offers a solution to the difficult questions with 
which the young Socrates confronts him: Can virtue (arete) be taught? 
The decision of Zeus to distribute a sense of justice and mutual respect 
among all humans means that these virtues do not fall within the com- 
petence of only a few experts. Humans, however, need a training in 
virtue, and Protagoras, a renowned and well-paid professor (sophistes), 
claims that he is just the person to teach it (322D). In the part of his 
“Great Speech” he calls an argument (logos, 323A-328D), he does not 
invoke the distant past or the involvement of the gods in human life 
or the Athenian tradition of autochthony; he speaks rather of the edu- 
cational practices of Athenian families and the Athenian democracy. 
When it comes to civic virtue, the Athenians believe that every citizen 
can be trained in it. The skill (arete) of a doctor is limited to a few gifted 


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and well-trained individuals. The skills of political life are universal and 
democratic, in Athens at least, where no citizen is unskilled (an idiotes, 
327 A). 

The myth of the Protagoras is unusual among Plato’s myths in one 
respect. It is not assigned to Socrates (or one of his surrogates) and 
it conveys a point of view alien to Plato and his Socrates. By contrast, 
another intellectual ( sophistes ), the Athenian Critias, will be held respon- 
sible for the myth of Atlantis and its defeat by Athens, but the “strange, 
yet absolutely true” ( Timaeus 20D) history of these two antagonistic 
civilizations conveys an elaborate philosophical invention that is Plato’s 
and Plato’s alone. 

Socrates’s Cicadas 

The myth of the cicadas and the myth of Theuth (Egyptian Toth) and 
Thamus might well be Plato’s inventions, 17 but they are not entirely 
original with Plato. Theuth, the inventor of writing, is the equiva- 
lent of the Greek Hermes and Thamus, the ruler of Egyptian Thebes, 
is the equivalent of the Egyptian god Ammon. Phaedrus is skeptical 
of Socrates’ Egyptian tale of the interview between Theuth and King 
Thamus ( Phaedrus 275B) and he has never heard of Socrates’ story that 
the cicadas were once human poets and singers ( Phaedrus 259D). The 
myths of the Phaedrus are told to the young Phaedrus by Socrates in the 
countryside of Athens in the heat of noon in high summer as cicadas 
“sing” (the Greek expression) on the trees overhead that grow along 
the Ilissus. 

As for Socrates’ cicadas, we recall that in the Iliad the old Trojans 
admiring Helen are compared to cicadas (3.145-53). This is significant 
because, after he has delivered his “palinode” to Eros, the dialogue 
returns to the question of rhetoric and the written speech of Lysias that 
has come into Phaedrus’ possession. The Trojans at the Scaean Gate are 
too old for warfare, but “excellent speakers,” like the cicadas that perch 
on the branches of trees and send forth their “soft, lily bright voice.” 
Socrates’ cicadas should not be strange to an Athenian: they recall the 
Athenian claim to autochthony, a claim that might be reflected in the 
archaic habit of wealthy Athenians of wearing gold cicadas in their hair. 18 
The autochthonous mode of reproduction of cicadas is mentioned by 
Aristophanes in his parable ofEros ( Symposium 191C). 

According to Socrates, who is aware of this ancient tradition, the 
Muses were not the first poets ( Phaedrus 258E— 259D). These were men 
of long ago who were so devoted to poetry and music that they needed 

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neither food nor drink, but sang, like La Fontaine’s cigale, all their life. 
As they died, they were transformed into cicadas and vanished into the 
ground. In the present, the function of these insects is to “sing” at noon 
and to overhear conversations, such as that of the Phaedrus, and report 
them to the appropriate Muses. Terpsichore, Erato, Calliope, and Urania 
are the four Muses mentioned. Calliope and Urania are the Muses of 
philosophy. This reference to the Muses connects with the central myth 
of the Phaedrus, where Socrates, making his amends to Eros, explains 
the origins of earthy eros as deriving (literally deriving — or flowing 
from) from the soul’s vision of the marvelous sights to be witnessed 
above the vault of heaven: justice, prudent self-control, knowledge, and 
true beauty (247B). This figures as one of the parables of Eros that 
we will turn to. The Muses take us back to the third type of divine 
madness defined in 249D (cf. 244B). Terpsichore takes us back to the 
eleven human “choruses” following the lead of eleven of the twelve gods 
(cf. 246E— 247B, 252C). Erato defines the votary of the fourth type of 
divine madness of the lover (249D). Calliope and Urania preside over 
the followers of Zeus and the discourse of the philosopher (246E, 252D). 

Socrates’ Theuth and Thamus 

The myth of Theuth and Thamus is not Greek, but it resembles the 
“Phoenician tale” of the Republic (3.414B— 415D) in that it taps into 
Greek mythology. Socrates sets it plausibly in Egyptian Thebes and 
makes Theuth the inventor of many things, including writing. Many of 
his inventions are attributed to the Greek culture hero Palamedes, but 
Greeks were aware both of the Phoenician origin of their alphabet and 
of the great antiquity of Egyptian hieroglyphics. 19 Theuth advertises 
this invention to King Thamus as a drug that can promote wisdom 
and memory. Thamus replies: it is yours to invent, mine to judge the 
worth of your invention. The exchange between the two reminds us 
of the exchange between Epimetheus and Prometheus in the Protagoras 
(320D). Thamus cannot approve of Theuth’s invention: “You have not 
discovered a drug to promote memory but rather a reminder.” 

This myth and Plato’s discussion of the dangers of the written 
word have provoked a great deal of writing, in part because Thamus’ 
judgment would seem to apply to Platonic writing. 20 This last myth 
of the Phaedrus certainly connects with the written speech in the form 
of a book roll that the young Phaedrus took out into the country to 
memorize and make his own (228A-B) and it would seem to connect 
with the central myth of the dialogue. The sight of a lovely boy and 

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the reflection of the lover’s image in the eyes of his beloved prompts a 
recollection that needs no written prompt of the visions both lovers had 
seen when winged and godlike in the presence of their gods. 21 Plato’s 
deployment of the three myths that Socrates addresses to Phaedrus is 
also an illustration of the kind of philosophical discourse that is designed 
to attract the variegated soul of a reader like Phaedrus (27 iC— 272B). 

The Great Myth of the Statesman 

The “Great Myth” of the Statesman (268D-274E) is the most reveal- 
ing of Plato’s myths for our understanding the intention and art of his 
philosophical mythopoeia. Not only is it described as a myth (thrice in 
268D, 272D, and 274E), but also it describes “many amazing things” 
(270D) that He beyond the ken of men in this recent order of the uni- 
verse. It incorporates more Greek myths than does any other Platonic 
dialogue and it connects with many other dialogues: it looks back to 
the Protagoras and anticipates the myth of Atlantis in the Tinmens/ Critias, 
and, most importantly, the “likely account” of the creation of the uni- 
verse given by Timaeus in the Timaeus (30B). And, like the last Platonic 
“tetralogy” that includes the Timaeus/ Critias , it figures in a “tetralogy”: 
the Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, and the unwritten Philosopher. It is 
told to a young Athenian by the name of Socrates in the presence of an 
older Socrates who remains preternaturally silent. It is told by a visitor 
to Athens from Velia in southern Italy, who appears only in the Sophist, 
a dialogue in which the so-called Eleatic Stranger (from Velia south of 
Paestum in southwest Italy) speaks to the young Theaetetus ( Theaetetus 
143D-144C). Since Socrates is young, a myth seems in order ( Statesman 
268D-E). We are meant to recall the Protagoras and the myth Socrates 
addresses to the “boy” Phaedrus in the Phaedrus (256E). It is also meant 
for Plato’s more mature readers. 

In the case of the Statesman, the myth of the reversal of the move- 
ment of the heavens from east-to-west to west-to-east and, as a con- 
sequence, the reversal of human time is encased in a long and tedious 
attempt to define the statesman, as the sophist had been defined, by the 
method of division ( diairesis ) that Socrates announced in the Phaedrus 
(266D). The first “cut” is between theoretical and practical knowledge. 
This division leads to the conception of the ruler or statesman (politikos ) 
as a shepherd directing a flock of terrestrial, feathered, solid-hoofed 
creatures. Now, at last, the Stranger introduces “play” and “the Great 
Myth” of the reversal of the course of the sun and heaven in order to 
push his inquiry on to a proper definition of the statesman (268D). So 


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far, the bare notion of the shepherd ruler is nothing new. Homer had 
described Agamemnon as the “shepherd of his armies” ( Iliad 2.243). 
The Stranger’s myth is introduced by a portent or apparition ( phasma ) 
related to the feud between the sons of Pelops, Atreus and Thyestes 
(268E). Young Socrates misunderstands the meaning of the word “por- 
tent” and thinks of the golden lamb introduced into the flocks of Atreus 
(a myth recalled in Euripides, Orestes 986-1004, and expanded in the 
scholia). The Stranger has something else in mind — the reversal of the 
course of the sun is a natural revulsion to the crime of Atreus serving 
his brother the flesh of his children to avenge Thyestes’ seduction of his 
wife, Aerope. The portent young Socrates remembered was the lamb 
with fleece of gold that Hermes had the shepherd Antiochus introduce 
into the flocks of Atreus to provoke a deadly quarrel between the broth- 
ers over the kingdom of Pelops. Antiochus at the very least connects 
with the theme of the ruler as shepherd. 

Of more philosophical interest is the reversal of the course of the 
sun from east to west (Euripides, Orestes 1001-1004). This marvelous 
event introduces the Stranger’s history of the periodic reversals in the 
movement of the heavens and the two states of mankind that obtain in 
each of the cycles. Under the reign of Cronus men are cared for like 
sheep by shepherding divinities ( daimones ); in the reign of Zeus, our 
present age, the world is released from control of the single god who 
directs the universe. 

If the first part of the Statesman puts on display the method of divi- 
sion, the Great Myth suspends this mode of analysis, and Plato himself 
exhibits his method of “collection.” His complex history of the alterna- 
tion of two cosmic cycles incorporates more Greek myths than does any 
other Platonic myth. Hesiod’s Uranus becomes the heavens; his account 
of the reigns of Cronus and Zeus ( Theogony 154-84, 453-500) and the 
legends of the Age of Saturn are transformed into two opposing cycles 
of the heavens. The proud Athenian claim of autochthony that denies an 
origin of the inhabitants of Attica in sexual reproduction is justified in 
the myth that at the turn of the cycle from Zeus to Cronus humans grew 
younger, not older, and vanished into the earth from which they sprang 
up again (271 A). The children born with grey hair in the Hesiodic Age 
of Iron ( Works and Days 181) appear in the Stranger’s myth (273E). In 
the Age of Saturn, all is reversed, and we are born old and grey. For 
the Age of Saturn and the destiny of some humans Plato engrosses the 
tradition of the Islands of the Blest ( Odyssey 4.561-69; Hesiod, Works 
and Days 156-73). There are in fact four stages to this cycle: the two 
distinct ages of Cronus and Zeus and the two cataclysmic shifts from 


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one cycle to the other when the human race is nearly destroyed. 22 As 
the Stranger says, the reports of the distant past that have come down 
to us have been extinguished with the passage of time or survive as they 
are scattered in incoherent bits and pieces (269B). 

The myth of the Statesman reassembles fragments of Greek myth 
into a “philosophical” whole — philosophical because one of the func- 
tions of philosophy, poetry, and literature is to estrange us from the 
familiar. The myth also attaches this dialogue to other Platonic dia- 
logues. It looks back to the history of primitive man told in the Protago- 
ras and the doctrine of recollection in the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus, 
which requires our forgetfulness, and, therefore, attests to the reality of 
what we have experienced in past lives. The elliptical becomes veridical. 
The description of the cosmic calamities that occur at the moment of 
the reversal of cosmic cycles prepares for the history of the destruction 
of Athens and Atlantis in the Timaeus/ Critias (cf. Statesman 273A and 
Timaeus 25 C). The god who lets go the rudder of the universe so well 
directed in the Age of Saturn (270C-D, 273 A) and the divinities who 
assist him in his work (274A) anticipate the Demiurge, the “god of the 
gods,” of the Timaeus and the lesser gods who assist him in his work of 
creation ( Timaeus 41A-D). It also prepares for Timaeus’ exposition of 
the two motions of the heavens ( Timaeus 36B-D). The Stranger goes 
on to describe the work of the statesman or ruler in the Age of Zeus 
(the only age in which there can be a human ruler) as that of a weaver 
combining the strands of the temperaments of his subjects into a whole 
(305E-311C). The paradigm describes Plato’s art of weaving the strands 
of Greek myth into a fabric of his own design. 

Critias: The War of the Worlds 

The most notorious of Plato’s myths is the myth of Atlantis (sometimes 
referred to as his Atlantikos logos). It is the most impressive philosoph- 
ical fiction ever written and it bears all the hallmarks of a fiction: the 
earnest claim to truth; excessive documentation and correspondingly 
fussy detail; the authority both of Egypt and of the Athenian lawgiver 
Solon; an exact but impossible chronology; an epic never completed; 
an unreliable narrator; and a narrative that ends dramatically in a sen- 
tence fragment. The account of the defeat of the imperial island of 
Atlantis by early Athens is presented as a sequel to Socrates’ description 
of an ideal state in the Republic. Critias, one of the thirty “tyrants” (of 
404—403), is responsible for the narrative. His promised logos serves as a 
prologue to Timaeus of Locri’s account of the creation of the world by 


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the Demiurge in the Timaeus and continues in the dialogue that bears his 
name, the Critias. The Timaeus and Critias are in fact a single dialogue 
(the Timaeus/ Critias), but Plato’s larger project can be described inade- 
quately as a tetralogy: the Republic, the Timaeus, the unfinished Critias, 
and the promised Hermocrates, the speech the general Hermocrates of 
Syracuse was to have given as the last of four speeches. 23 But he remains 
silent, since the Critias ends with these words of Zeus to the gods con- 
cerning the degenerate kings of Atlantis (121B-C): 

But as Zeus, god of the gods, reigning as king according to 
law, could clearly see this state of affairs, he observed this 
noble race lying in this abject state and resolved to punish 
them and to make them more careful and harmonious as a 
result of this chastisement. To this end he called all the gods 
to their most honored abode, which stands in the middle 
of the universe and looks down upon all that has a share in 
generation. And, when he had gathered them together, he 
said . . . 

This assembly and the stern speech of Zeus echo not only the speech 
of Zeus in Odyssey 1.26-43 but more audibly the scene evoked by 
Aristophanes in the Symposium (190C-D). 

What follows we learn from the Timaeus Prologue (24E-25C): 
imperial Atlantis launches an attack into the Mediterranean and is finally 
defeated by the early Athenians, whose virtues and manner of life cor- 
respond to those of the guardians of Socrates’ ideal city. They defeat the 
aggressors from the Atlantic. An Egyptian priest relying on an Egyptian 
hieroglyphic history preserved in Sais recounts for Solon the end of the 
war of the worlds of Atlantis and Athens (25C-D): 

But, afterwards, earthquakes and floods of incredible vio- 
lence struck, and in one terrible day and night, your entire 
warrior class disappeared as one body beneath the earth, and 
in this same calamity the island of Atlantis sank into the sea 
and disappeared. That explains why that distant sea cannot 
be navigated and resists exploration even now, since the mud 
produced as the island sank covers its surface to a great depth. 

Here we have the account Solon gave of what he learned in Egypt. 
Like the Critias, Solon’s poetic history was never finished. The civil 
strife he found in Athens on his return prevented him from completing 


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it ( Timaeus 21C). In his invention of the lost and unrecoverable, Plato 
discovered one essential element of the art of lying. 

Plato’s myth of Atlantis has prompted many of his incautious read- 
ers to explore the Sargossa Sea ofhis tale of Atlantis. Ifhis Timaeus/ Critias 
is a fiction, it is also a proper Platonic myth. It deals with an amazing past 
and gods in their relation to both the first Athenians and the descendants 
of Poseidon and the mortal Clito on Atlantis. It recognizes the Athenian 
traditions of autochthony and the struggle of Athena and Poseidon for 
control of Attica; it also recognizes the Greek tradition of the deluge. 
In creating this fiction, Plato relied on the authority of Greek myths. 
But in creating the island nation of Atlantis he created a distant mir- 
ror in which the image of the imperial Athens of his youth could be 
seen. 34 

Three Parables of Eros 

Aristophanes (Symposium) 

We come now to Eros and Thanatos, to origins and ends. Eros, the god 
of passionate desire, and eros, the passion of desire itself, are the subject 
of three Platonic parables. Two of these are told in the Symposium, a 
third in the Phaedrus. The first is the myth of Aristophanes in the Sym- 
posium (which Aristophanes calls a logos); the second is Diotima’s speech, 
recalled by Socrates in the Symposium (which has no description); and 
the third Socrates’ speech in the Phaedrus, his “palinode” to appease the 
god Eros (which he calls a mythos) . All these parables involve the divine 
inasmuch as human passion and desire are taken to have their origin in 
the god Eros. Aristophanes is the “author” of the first of these. His is 
the fourth speech of the seven speeches of the Symposium (229B-238A). 
When his turn comes, Socrates will give the sixth; it is not his own, 
but a speech he attributes to Diotima of Mantinea (189B-193D). All 
of the first six speeches of the Symposium are intended as praise of the 
neglected god, Eros. The drunken Alcibiades will conclude by speaking 
seventh in praise of Socrates, a Socrates who uncannily fits Diotima’s 
description of Eros. 

The speeches are delivered as part of the after-dinner entertain- 
ment at a banquet celebrating the victory of the tragic poet Agathon 
at the dramatic competitions of 416. Phaedrus, who suggests the topic, 
begins by celebrating Eros as the oldest of the gods and for this rea- 
son a god who has no parents (178 A). He cites the poets Hesiod and 
Parmenides as his authorities. Aristophanes’ myth is something that he 


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is the only source for; he will instruct Agathon’s guests and they in turn 
will instruct others ( Symposium 189B— 193D): 

Originally, human beings were different from what they are 
today. In the distant past, they had powerful round bodies 
surmounted by two heads which, like their genitals, faced in 
opposite directions. They had four arms and four legs that 
propelled them in circular motion, like tumblers. At that 
time there were not two sexes, male and female, but three. 

A hermaphrodite ( androgynon ) existed then as a composite 
of male and female. These three sexes owed their natures 
to three rotund gods: the compound of male and male to 
Helios, the Sun; the compound of female and female to Ge, 
the Earth; and the compound of male and female to Selene, 
the Moon. Impelled by their power and lack of any restraint, 
they made an assault of Olympus, as did once the giants Otus 
and Ephialtes. 

Zeus was alarmed by this threat, but decided not to 
destroy this human race. Rather he cut these round creatures 
in half (and thus he doubled the number of humans offering 
sacrifices). He instructed Apollo to draw the skin over the 
exposed halves of these creatures as a leather worker draws a 
purse together by a string. The small opening is what we now 
call the “navel.” Now desire ( pothos ) arises. These severed 
halves immediately sought their other halves: male and male, 
female and female, and male and female. This desire for our 
missing halves and our instinctive need to be reunited with 
our lost halves is eros, or Eros — the philanthropic god who 
can heal us and make us whole. If the blacksmith Hephaestus 
were to stand over us as a reunited couple clasped in an 
embrace and offer to fuse us and unite us into our original 
self, who could refuse the offer? 

There are many comic details in Aristophanes’ myth, 25 but Plato is 
not mainly concerned with making him a comic figure. Aristophanes’ 
speech does not begin to ascend to the heights of Diotima’s as she 
describes our ascent in the objects of our desire from an individual to 
the idea ofBeauty itself. Yet, Aristophanes’ conception of love has one 
thing in common with that of Socrates and Diotima. Eros, not now 
the god, but the god demoted to human desire (eros), is fundamentally 
a desire for something that the lover lacks, whether the object of his 


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desire is another person or something as remote as wisdom ( sopliia ). 
The objects of human desire are, ultimately, unattainable, and such is 
the human condition. No god can reunite us with our other halves, 
either in this life or in death. Like the inhabitants of Dante’s Limbo, we 
live in desire but without hope ( Inferno 4.42). With Diotima’s speech 
the desire of the philosopher for wisdom (a desire implicit in the word 
philosophia) enters into the dialogue of the seven speeches of the Sympo- 
sium. This connection surfaces in a dramatic detail. When Socrates has 
finished speaking, Aristophanes is the only guest who does not praise his 
speech. He says rather that it reminds him of something that he had said 

Diotima (Symposium) 

Socrates learns from Diotima that Eros is not a god, but a great daimon 
intermediary between and mediating the human and the divine. Socrates 
asks about his parents. Diotima answers (203A— 204A): 

He is the son of Poros (Resourceful) and Penia (Poverty) . 

Since Penia managed to seduce the drunken (and then 
resourceless) Poros at a feast of the gods celebrating the birth 
of Aphrodite, he takes after both of his parents and Aphrodite 
as well. On his mother’s side he is poor, tough, and wiry, 
with no fixed home or bed. He sleeps in doorways and on 
the streets. Taking after his father he is clever at entrapping 
the fair and virtuous, and brave, impetuous, and intense. He 
craves understanding and is resourceful and desires wisdom 
throughout his entire life. 

Socrates’ “Palinode” (Phaedrus) 

The longest of all of Socrates’ accounts of Eros is given in the Phaedrus, 
a dialogue devoted to the twin themes of rhetoric and eros and to the 
overarching and unstated theme of erotic and philosophical rhetoric. 
It comes in the middle of the dialogue after Phaedrus has read Lysias’ 
speech that features the absurdity of a “nonlover” attempting to con- 
vince a boy to grant him his “favors” and after Socrates has improvised 
a speech in favor of Lysias’ “nonlover.” But Socrates realizes at high 
noon that he has offended the powerful god Eros and makes amends by 


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offering a “palinode” giving a cosmic account of Eros and the power of 
love. Some of this speech will be presented as we turn finally to Plato’s 
“myths of judgment.” In the Phaedrus, there is no myth of Eros as a god, 
although the recantation is addressed to “dear Eros” (257A). The closest 
Plato comes to acknowledging and transforming the representations of 
Eros in Greek art is to offer an image of the powerful god as winged. 
An image of the divine is all that is possible in human discourse (246A) . 
Unlike the winged Eros of vase painting, this Eros does not swoop down 
upon the soul but lifts it upward. 

As in Diotima’s speech in the Symposium, Eros has a greater empire 
over human life than passionate desire (lust) for another human being. In 
the cosmic setting Socrates introduces, the eros that unites two human 
males is their vision of transcendent realities in a winged state above 
the “back” of heaven. This vision is reawakened on earth as the lover 
looks into the eyes of his beloved and, like Narcissus, sees his own image 
there. But unlike Narcissus, both lovers are reminded of another form of 
existence. Plato is at great pains to connect the word eros with the Greek 
word to flow ( rhein ); he also connects the word himeros (a longing) with 
the expression for sending off parts of oneself (255C-D and 251C). In his 
concluding prayer to Eros Socrates apologizes for his “poetic language” 
(257A). He has resorted to poetry (and myth) to appeal to Phaedrus. But 
throughout a dialogue that begins with an address to “dear Phaedrus,” 
continues with a prayer to “dear Eros,” and strangely concludes with 
Socrates’ prayer to “dear Pan,” Plato exposes his reader to the divine 
presence of divinities of the Attic countryside - Boreas, Oreithyia, Pan - 
at noon in midsummer, far from the walls of Athens and its sophists. 

Thanatos: Three Myths of Judgment 

Socrates: The Phaedo 

Myths of the past are by far the most common in the Platonic dialogues. 
In Greek mythology there is no such thing as a myth of the future save 
in prophecies concerning the fate of heroes such as Menelaus in the 
afterlife and the cult of heroes predicted at the end of some Euripidean 
tragedies such as the Hippolytus. And there is no such thing as myth of 
the “hidden present.” But in one of Plato’s so-called myths ofjudgment 
we confront Socrates’ description of the “true earth” given to a small 
group of his friends in the last moments of his life on earth. This is in 
the Phaedo, a dialogue dated after the Gorgias. I will address it first, since 


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it addresses a radically new cosmology in which Tartarus is described as 
one of the three divisions of the universe. At the end of three arguments 
Socrates has made to convince Simmias and Cebes of Thebes that the 
soul is immortal and immediately after the autobiographical description 
he gives of what we would call the “Presocratic” science of causes (96A— 
99D), he speaks ofwhat he believes the “true earth” to be (108C-115A). 
It is here that we discover the sole Platonic myth of the hidden present in 
Socrates’ complex description of the true earth and its regions, including 
its interior. In what he calls a “myth” (110B), Socrates describes what 
the true earth looks like when seen from a prospect not of earth but of 
heaven. He enters into a description of reward or punishment in the 
afterlife as he describes the great subterranean cavities that receive the 
waters of the lower earth and the souls of those who are destined for 
happiness or punishment in the afterlife (110B— 115A). 

This is an odd myth and significantly different from the myths of 
judgment that conclude the Gorgias and Republic. Socrates, of course, 
has been judged himself and has just spoken of the judgment against him 
(98C-E). But in this account of the Underworld there are no judges. 
Nor is there any narrative. The gods are mentioned only once. Socrates 
gives rather a long, static, and complex description of a universe more 
vast in both its heights and depths than humans can easily conceive 
of, especially in the confines of a prison in Athens. Yet this strange and 
fascinating digression reveals more than do the other myths ofjudgment 
the transcendental genius of Plato’s myths. 

In the first stage of this description, Socrates creates a three-tiered 
proportional scheme that will reappear in the image of the cave in the 
Republic (7.515A-517A). 26 What we think of as our earth is in fact only 
a tiny part of the universe and our conception of it is as dull and limited 
as the perspective of frogs or ants at the edge of a pond. We actually 
live in a small hollow filled with water and mist in a realm of decay and 
deformed and eroded shapes. In our own terms, we are like men who 
live at the bottom of the sea and look up to the light and air above us 
as if it was heaven. This is our bogus earth. The “true earth” is located 
above our atmosphere in the aither, or the pure and brilliant light of the 
heavens. The scheme can be set out in the following terms: the depths 
of the sea are to the air and light of the earth as our dull, dark earth 
is to the purity and light of the “true earth.” But the picture is more 
difficult and complex in that it has a basement beneath our earth. Our 
earth extends down into great chasms that receive rivers that flow into 
them. These descend down to the center of this spherical earth located 
in the center of the universe and are then repelled and forced upward 


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in an alternating rhythm. The deepest of these is the pit of Tartarus, 
which pierces our world. 

Socrates’ mythical account begins as he describes the universe, 
including our world at its center, as a sphaira, or ball, made up of twelve 
strips of variegated colors 27 more intense than anything found in this 
lower world. And, just as we discover the souls of the dead in the hollows 
below us, we discover in the aither of the true earth perfect plants, fruits, 
and men; here are sacred groves of the gods and sanctuaries in which the 
gods are truly inhabitants (iiiB). Evidently, Plato is already announcing 
his conception of celestial deities, the planets and the stars, that we will 
find in the Timaeus and Laws. 

Tartarus lies below, perhaps as far below the earth as the true earth is 
from the surface of our earth. It is only at this infernal stage of Socrates’ 
description that he recalls for Simmias the Greek myths concerning 
the Underworld and the punishments that await the evil there. He 
has already invoked the Islands of the Blest (in A). Now he quotes a 
line from Homer’s Iliad (8.14) not only to recall a poetic or “mythic” 
conception of the Underworld but to suggest a proportional scheme to 
be discovered two lines later (8 . 16) . For Homer (as for Hesiod, Theogony 
720-25), Tartarus is as far from earth as earth is from heaven. Oceanus, 
the four rivers of the Underworld, and the vast Lake of Acheron suggest 
a topography of crime and punishment more complicated than we will 
find in either the Gorgias or the Republic. 

Socrates: The Gorgias 

Plato taps into Greek heroic myth in the Gorgias, a dialogue for which 
Plato has erected as a dramatic background ( skene ) the debate of the 
twin brothers Zethus and Amphion of Thebes and their irreconcilable 
dispute over which of their two lives is the better. He knew this best 
from Euripides’ Antiope, a play that dramatizes their dispute over which 
of their lives ( bioi ) is superior, that of the man engaged in political 
life or that of the poet and musician. This is the Theban myth that 
prepares for the final myth of the afterlife. Socrates casts Callicles in 
the role of Zethus and himself in the role of Amphion. Euripides’ 
play has a happy ending that is made possible only by the appearance 
of the god Hermes, who resolves the quarrel. In the Gorgias, Plato 
rejects the artificial solution of Euripides and by rejecting it reveals his 
understanding of how deliberately artificial it is in Euripides. 28 

At the end of the Gorgias, Callicles has nothing more to say to 
Socrates. He remains utterly unpersuaded by Socrates’ argument that it 


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is better to be the victim of injustice than to commit injustice and that 
the truest form of rhetoric is not the deceptive persuasiveness of a sophist 
like Gorgias or his understudy Polus but that of the knowing philoso- 
pher (513 C). With rude reluctance Callicles allows Socrates to conclude 
his argument by extending it to the afterlife (522E). As is often the case, 
Socrates’ logos comes from an anonymous source, but the account itself 
is confirmed in part by Homer and the tradition that the sons of Cronus, 
Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades (here Pluto), divided their domains into the 
heavens, sea, and Underworld. (The earth is common to all three, Iliad 
15 .187—92 .) Like the myth of the Protagoras, this narrative has two stages; 
it features Zeus speaking, and involves Prometheus. At first, under the 
rule of Cronus, men were judged when still alive on the day of their 
death. Then the just were sent to the Islands of the Blest, the unjust 
to the prison of Tartarus. But Zeus comes to recognize that there is a 
problem in judging the living who are still “clothed” in their imposing 
bodies, reputations, and living witnesses to speak on their behalf. He 
commands Prometheus to put an end to such superficial judgments (a 
tradition reflected in Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 248). In the improved 
system, judgment will come unexpectedly after death, and judged and 
judges will stand “naked,” that is, as souls freed from their bodies 
(523 D), a condition that seems to reflect the conception of Odyssey 

Three new judges are appointed. They are sons of Zeus. 
Rhadamanthys is judge of the souls that come from Asia; Aeacus of 
the souls that come from Europe. In case of dispute, the “Asian” Minos 
will arbitrate. These judges will have no knowledge of a soul’s identity. 
Their task is to discriminate between the souls of the just and unjust. 
Among the unjust Plato introduces two categories (as he will in the 
Republic): those who can be cured and whose punishment will serve as 
a deterrent to the living and those beyond curing. Archelaus of Thes- 
saly is a living example of the second criminal type, as are Tantalus, 
Sisyphus, and Tityus of Homer’s Nekuia (or book of the dead). These 
are the criminals sighted by Odysseus in the Underworld. 29 Two “seals” 
distinguish the just from the unjust (as they will in the Myth of Er in the 
Republic). Socrates speaks of the philosopher and names Aristides, “the 
just,” as an example of the soul that will be rewarded in the afterlife. In 
a dialogue in which the trial and conviction of Socrates cast a shadow 
over the conversation, the fate of Socrates will surely come to the mind 
of Plato’s reader. Socrates ends by saying that he has been persuaded by 
this account, but perhaps Callicles will regard it as a tale ( mythos ) told 
by an old woman (527A). Callicles remains unpersuaded. 


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Socrates’ Myth ofEr (Republic) 

In these three “myths ofjudgment,” there is a strict connection between 
rational and earthbound arguments for the immortality of the soul that, 
in the language of the Phaedo (108D), take us from “here to there” 

( enthende ekeise). Plato recognized, as did Dante after him, that human 
experience and human rationality cannot reach to that world beyond. 
There is nothing in this life to falsify a claim about the afterlife. All 
that the human mind here on this earth can offer as a conception of 
that other world must be an approximation or an image drawn from 
our limited experience on earth. Dante understood these limits and 
he used the example of Glaucus of Anthedon on Euboea to intimate 
that his transformation from a fisherman to a god of the sea serves 
as an example of how the human can go beyond the human, as had 
Plato (in Phaedo 108D). For this transcendence Dante invents the word 
trasumanar ( Pamdiso 1.70). In commenting on this passage in his Letter to 
Can Grande, he cites Plato’s technique of using “metaphors” to move 
us from here to there. That is, after all, the function of metaphor. 30 

In Plato, there is finally no last judgment. His souls migrate from 
one form of life to another. The words of Christ in Matthew 24 and 25 
are not appropriate to his conception of the punishments and rewards 
that await the soul after “death,” although Christian writers found con- 
firmation of their own belief of a Last Judgment in the Gorgias and the 
Republic. Socrates’ final myth ofjudgment is the most complex and fasci- 
nating of all. It is the myth ofEr with which the long conversation of the 
Republic concludes (10.614A— 62 iD). The Republic is concerned with the 
conception of justice and injustice, both within the individual human 
soul and in the state. Socrates’ last words are addressed to Glaucon, 
Plato’s brother, whom he addresses repeatedly by name, as if recalling 
him to himself. (He did the same with Callicles in the Gorgias.) After 
reading the last words of the Republic, we can well believe that Glaucon 
might have been persuaded. It could well be that there is something 
in all of us that, if trained by argument, responds to myth rather than 

Interlude - Socrates: The Phaedrus 

This is not, as we have seen, the last time that Socrates will speak of the 
fate of the soul in the afterlife. He returns to this possibility in his speech 
of recantation to appease the god Eros for what he had said in praise of 
the sober restraint of the “nonlover.” In this dialogue, his account of the 


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judgment that awaits the souls of the just and unjust is expressed in the 
image of the tripartite soul he offers as a winged charioteer controlling 
two winged horses. Here the “decree of Adrastia” gives Socrates’ final 
version of the judgment that distinguishes between the souls of the just 
and unjust (248C-249D). In Plato’s myths of judgment there is a great 
variety in visualizing this judgment, but the larger context in which it 
fits remains the same. 

In the Phaedrus, we confront a place above the vault of heaven 
from which the winged human soul in the company of the gods can 
contemplate something of reality. Adrastia (the equivalent of Atropus in 
the myth of Er) makes her decisions guided by a single consideration: 
has the soul witnessed the highest reality and “justice itself’ (247D). 
Thus, the soul’s glimpse of truth and therefore its justice will determine 
the lives of the soul after the termination of one particular life. Eros 
enters into this image in that the soul of the philosopher and the soul 
of the proper lover of young men will regain their wings and be judged 
in a place below Dike (Justice) and the vault of heaven. The unjust 
and ignorant (and, the worst of these, the tyrants) are dispatched to 
the courts established under the earth. As in the Mem, the knowledge 
or vision of the winged soul that has returned to earth comes from 
the “recollection” of what it has seen above ( anamnesis , Mem 80E- 

The central “myth” of the Phaedrus might not conform neatly to 
our provisional definition of what constitutes a myth in Plato. Let us 
attempt to refine this definition. Platonic myths do, indeed, connect 
the human and the divine, and the divine is an object of wonder, even 
as it is recalled on earth ( Phaedrus 254D). The myth has its obvious 
attachment to Greek myth and its iconography: it recalls the image 
of Eros as winged. Socrates even cites (and Plato invents) two verses 
from the “descendants of Homer” that give the divine name for Eros as 
Pterotos (Winged Love, 252B). The myth of the Phaedrus is designed to 
serve as a counter to the charm of Greek poetry and myth; it is meant 
to take wing above them. 

Back to Er 

The myth of Er is explicitly introduced as a counter to the tale (apologos) 
of the Underworld that Odysseus told Alcinous on Phaeacia ( Republic 
10.614A). It is a narrative and it is dramatic, in that it reproduces speech 
directly. As judges it features not Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus, 


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but now the Fates (Moerae): Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropus. What Er 
saw in his out-of-body experience needs an acute visual imagination 
to register. In his near-death experience he saw a divine place with 
chasms opening right and left. To the left of those to be judged is the 
pit of Tartarus; to the right is the passage up into the heavens. This 
is not unfamiliar. We find the parting of the ways in Orphic texts. 
But the “spindle of Necessity” is Plato’s invention. It is his philosoph- 
ical image of the tradition of the Fates (Moerae), who are represented 
as women working at a loom. One, Lachesis, measures out the wool 
(the length of a life); another, Clotho, weaves the wool; and the last, 
Atropus (the Inevitable), cuts the thread of life. In Plato’s version of 
the myth, Lachesis judges the past, Clotho the present, and Atropus 
the future (10.621 A). In the Myth of Er we discover other familiar 
figures from Greek myth. Eight Sirens are perched on the spindle of 
Necessity; we find the infernal River Lethe flowing through a sweltering 

The myth is also a narrative. Socrates gives an account of Er, 
the son of Armenius of Pamphylia in Asia Minor, and his miraculous 
experience of death and revival and the judgment that awaits the soul 
in a “divine place,” a meadow where souls are judged and swept up 
into a chasm in the sky to the right or plunged down beneath the 
earth to the left. His experience of the judgment, from which he is 
exempt, makes him a messenger ( angelos ) to the living. Without giving 
any other authority, Socrates tells Glaucon what Er reported. Er is Plato’s 
invention. After he revives twelve days after he had fallen in battle and 
his body was placed on a funeral pyre, he returns as a living witness to 
the rewards for justice and punishments for injustice in the afterlife. 

In reinforcing the myths of rewards and punishment in the after- 
life, Plato also enlists Orphic beliefs in the rewards of the pious in the 
afterlife. And he adds a striking feature to both traditions. After the dead 
have completed 1 ,000 years of reward or punishment, they are called 
by a prophet who proclaims: “Souls, who live but for a day: This is the 
beginning of another cycle of living for you as a mortal and death prone 
race” (10.617B). He offers the souls assembled before him a choice of 
life. Ajax chooses the life of a lion; Agamemnon that of an eagle. 
Remarkably, Odysseus makes the last choice - the life of a private per- 
son who minds his own business. Thunder rolls overhead and a terrible 
tremor shakes the earth. Socrates ends the tale by urging Glaucon to keep 
to the upward path for another 1,000-year cycle. When Plato’s reader 
leaves the conversation of the Republic, he does not leave a medieval 


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Italian church and look up to a terrifying scene of The Last Judgment. 
He leaves a strange Greek temple to face still other judgments and still 
other lives. 

Further Reading 

The fullest bibliographical guide to the myths in Plato is that of Luc 
Brisson (1994, English translation 1998); Gerard Naddaf’s Introduction 
to the English translation is an excellent point of orientation ([1998] vii- 
liii) . The three most important and comprehensive studies of Platonic 
mythopoeia are those of Stewart (1905), Frutiger (1930), and Reinhardt 
(i960). Any interpreter of a Platonic myth is obliged to place the myth 
in its context, both within the domain of Greek myth in general and 
within the dialogue in which it appears. I have noted what I consider 
the most important contributions to an understanding of a particular 
Platonic myth in the notes. Plato’s reader also has the expert direction 
of the more general studies of Graf (1993) and Morgan (2000), which 
place him in the context of the wider philosophical appraisal of Greek 
myth. Valuable too is the short general assessment of myth in Plato by 
Edelstein (1949). 


1 This fictive antithesis is well addressed by Morgan (2000) 30—37. It is only in later 
rhetorical theory that mythos is distinguished from historia (history) and plasma (a 
plausible fiction) as “an account of things that never happened and are false,” Sextus 
Empiricus, Against the Professors 263—5; anticipated in the source of ad Herennium 

2 Mythos is the preferred word: DK 31 B 17. 14— 15; 23.11; 24.2; 62.3 (in Purifications 
B114.1), and logos is used only in Purifications B 131.4. By contrast, logos is the 
only term Heraclitus uses for the principle of rationality in his book and his own 
argument, as in DK Bi, 2, and 51. Plato can describe the utopian projects of the 
Republic or Laws as existing only in theory (logoi). Republic 9. 9 52 A. In justifying his 
involvement with the tyrants of Syracuse, he could say that he did not want to be 
all theory (logos), Epistle 7.328C. 

3 He dismissed this poetic tendency, but in his history of the Peloponnesian War the 
common formula logoi men . . . ergoi de (“this was what was said” . . . “but in reality”) 
is a sign of his deep distrust of what men say, of his actors’ delusions (elpis) and 
their ability to ascertain the real situation on the ground ( akribeia ) . The contrast is 
common; 2.65.9 and 3-38-4 — 1 6 are good examples. 

4 Geography 1.2.35 and 11.6.3. 

5 Most of these were isolated and translated in Stewart (1905). They are treated as a 
group by Frutiger (1930) and Reinhardt (i960), but none of these scholars arrives 


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at exactly the same census of Platonic myths. What is often called “the myth of the 
cave” in the Republic (7.514A-517A) does not count as a Platonic myth: it is meant 
as an image ( eikon ) illustrating the levels of reality plotted on the divided line of 
Republic 6.509D-511D. Although this vivid comparison addresses a marvelous real- 
ity in the world outside the cave, it is not attributed to any anonymous oral source, 
it contains no narrative of the past, it involves no divinities, and it takes no Greek 
myth in its sights. For recent and pertinent reflections of what constitutes a myth 
in the Platonic dialogues there is Charles’ Kahn’s “The Myth of the Statesman” 

6 By Reinhardt (i960) 220. 

7 Mormolykeia, Gorgias 473D, Phaedo 77E; old wives’ tales, Republic 1.350E, 2.378D, 
and 9.571B. 

8 The iconography of Boreas, who gained in importance for the Athenians after 
the gales (Norwesters) that destroyed the Persian fleet on Cape Artemisium 
(Herodotus, Histories 7.189), and Oreithyia is treated by Erika Simon in LIMC 
VIII 1.64-68. 

9 Whose tale is told by Glaucus in Iliad 6.154—202. 

10 The charioteer of this frieze controls three horses, not two. 

11 In Socrates’ long discussion of the traditional poetry the young guardians should 
not be exposed to, 2.377E-378A. 

12 Plato deliberately puns on his name in Republic 3.415A, when he speaks of the 
“plastic god” (ho theos platton) who fashioned human beings in the depths of the 
earth. The philosopher and satirist Timon of Phlious understood this well, as we 
can tell from his epigram on Plato, DL 3.26. 

13 Republic 10.620A-B, Timaeus 90E-92C. 

14 As they are termed by Annas (1982). 

15 Thus, Protagoras 320C-322D is reproduced as an “imitation” of Protagoras’ treatise 
in DK 80C1. The description of the Platonic invention of the myth of Atlantis is 
that ofCherniss (1947) 254. 

16 The role of the sophists in the interpretation of Greek myth is well presented 
in Morgan (2000). An elegant characterization of the sophistic and philosophical 
treatment of myth can be found in Graf (1993), chapter 8. 

17 Frutiger took them to be the only Platonic myths that were his pure invention, 
(1930) 233. 

18 Thucydides, 1.6; Aristophanes, Knights 1321—34, Clouds 984—6. 

19 Timaeus 2 3 A; the passage attributed to Manetho by Syncellus, Manetho, ed. 
W. G. Waddell (Cambridge, MA and London 1940) p. 208, gives Plato’s version 
of Thoth’s invention of writing. 

20 The best-known written response is that of Jacques Derrida (1972). 

21 Lebeck (1972) reveals still more connections. 

22 There is great disagreement in the reading of this myth. To assess its difficulties 
and ambiguities the reader should turn first to Vidal-Naquet (1986) 285—301, and 
then to Kahn (2007). 

23 There is a presentation of the Timaeus/ Critias and the unwritten Hermokrates and 
their relation to the Republic in Clay and Purvis (1999) 36—40 and 53—97. 

24 The tradition of the struggle of Athena and Poseidon for possession of Attica 
(displayed on the west pediment of the Parthenon) is reflected in Critias 108B; 
the Athenian pride in autochthony in Critias 113D (and Menexenus 238D-E); the 


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deluge in the tradition of Deucalion in Critias 112A. It was Vidal Nacquet (1986) 
who most clearly discerned the reflection of imperial Athens in Plato’s description 
of Atlantis. 

25 Indeed, the comparison of the severed halves to soles ( psettai ) derives directly from 
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata 515—6. The comic cobbler’s task assigned to Apollo, the 
god of healing, might well have inspired the cobbled repair of the severed halves 
of the crusader on Italo Calvino’s II Visconte Dimezzato (1966). 

26 The Greek for “proportion” (ana logon) occurs in 110D. The best introduction 
to these three-tiered proportions in the Platonic dialogues is Hermann Frankel’s 


27 Perhaps the geometry of pentagons stitched together as in a soccer ball or, just 
possibly, the twelve sections of Martin Waldseemiiller’s “gores” of his world map 
of 1507. 

28 This background of the dialogue is well brought out in the revealing study of 
Nightingale (1992). 

29 Tityus in Odyssey 11.576—81; Tantalus in 11.582-92; and Sisyphus in 11.593—600. 
Plato parodies this scene in Protagoras 315B-C, as he has Socrates recognize the 
great sophists gathered in the light of early morning in the house of Callias. 

30 Dante’s citation of the myth of Glaucus (Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.904—68) comes 
in Paradiso 1 70—72. I argue that Plato refers to this Glaucus as his inspiration for 
Socrates’ description of “the true earth” in the Phaedo (1985). Dante’s reference 
to Plato’s metaphors comes in his Letter to Can Grande, Dantis Epistulae X 21 


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figure I. A fox telling Aesop fables. Red-figure kylix of the Bologna Painter 
from Vulci, fifth century BC. (Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome. Photo: 
Alinari/Art Resource, New York.) 

figure 2. The Charioteer of the Phaedrus, Andrea Sansovino, the Medicean Villa 
of Poggio a Caiano. (Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.) 

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7: Hellenistic Myti-iographers 

Carolyn Higbie 

F rom sometime in the fourth century BC on, Greeks devel- 
oped an interest in collecting, documenting, and interpreting 
the important literary works of their past. The central texts to 
which they devoted much of their energies were the Homeric epics, 
the Iliad and Odyssey, but these were not the only ones. They also 
acquired the works of the lyric poets, tragedians, comedians, orators, 
historians, and philosophers. The centers for these projects became the 
great libraries of antiquity, most notably in Alexandria and Pergamum, 
but there were others, including some that focused on philosophical 
texts . 1 Scholars who worked in these libraries faced a monumental task 
of organizing the texts, before they could begin real study of them. As 
part of their initial work, they had to create a catalog of the collec- 
tion, which may be the reason for one of two lists that Callimachus, 
an Alexandrian scholar and librarian of the third century BC, was said 
to have composed, in addition to his learned poetry: Tables of Illustrious 
Persons in Every Branch of Learning Together with a List of their Works . 2 
This seems to have been some sort of catalog to the holdings of the 
Alexandria Library, though the fragments are so brief and so few that it 
is difficult to be certain. 

Once these preliminaries were complete, though additions to the 
libraries, particularly that in Alexandria, continued for centuries, schol- 
ars could turn their attention to studying the works themselves. The 
texts reflected an often double transmission, since many had probably 
survived through both oral transmission and then as written documents 
that had been copied and recopied in different cities, by different scribes 
with varying abilities, and for many purposes. Generations of oral trans- 
mission of poems meant they had been reworked and adapted each time 
they were performed, depending on the abilities of the performer, the 


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setting of the performance, and the response of the audience. Mistakes 
that inevitably accompany the copying and recopying of written texts, 
especially those that contain unusual dialect forms and archaisms or dif- 
ficult metrical patterns, meant that the Alexandrian scholars would have 
been confronted by texts that not only were difficult to read but also 
were filled with a bewildering array of versions of the most popular 
authors and works. These might also contain versions of myths peculiar 
to a location, which might either contradict another or might simply 
be otherwise unknown. In the Homeric Odyssey, for example, a central 
theme is Penelope’s twenty years of faithfulness to her husband and her 
clever trick with the burial shroud for Laertes, which enables her to 
put off the suitors. The second-century-AD traveler Pausanias, how- 
ever, reports that the Mantineans in the Peloponnese preserve a very 
different account of life on Ithaca during Odysseus’ absence: Penelope 
was unfaithful to Odysseus with many suitors. When Odysseus returned 
home and discovered this, he threw Penelope out of the house, and she 
returned to the home of her father in Sparta and then died in Mantinea 
(Paus. 8.12.6-7). Another tradition, also perhaps from Arcadia, said that 
Penelope had had an affair with either Hermes or Apollo or all the 
suitors and had given birth to Pan (Herodotus 2.145.4; Apollodorus, 
Epitome 2.7.38; Duris of Samos Die Fragmente der griechischen Flistoriker 
76 F 21; Pindar fr. 100). 

Mythography and Paradoxography 

Some Hellenistic scholars devoted themselves to attempting to restore 
what they believed to be the original version of a work. Their focus 
on the text then led them to produce commentaries and essays. Others 
saw in texts mines of material to be extracted for any number of uses. 
From this double opportunity - the need for texts to be explicated 
and the wealth of material contained within them — developed at least 
two genres, mythography 3 and paradoxography, which flourished for 
some four centuries, from the mid-third century BC into the second 
century AD. Students of literature scanned texts and extracted from 
them material grouped around a theme or focus, such as stories of 
the weird or unusual (paradoxography) and stories about the gods and 
heroes (mythography). 

In addition to his list of the library holdings, in fact, Callimachus 
was also credited with a second catalog, A Collection of Wonders from the 
Entire Earth Arranged by Locality , 4 This seems to be an early, if not the 


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Hellenistic Mytliograpiiers 

first, example of paradoxography. Unfortunately, Callimachus’ work 
does not survive complete, but the third-century BC writer Antigonus 
of Carystus includes forty-four selections from Callimachus in his own 
Historiae mirabiles 129—73 ( = ft- 4°7 Pfeiffer). 

The fate of Callimachus’ collection of oddities was not unique. 
Many other paradoxographies and mythographies survive only in frag- 
ments, as excerpts in the work oflater authors. More than twenty Greek 
paradoxographers, of whom only seven survive, compiled cohections of 
the bizarre from the time of Callimachus until the third century AD. 5 
Of the many mythographies written during the same period, very few 
survive even in fragmentary or abridged form. We know the mytho- 
graphical work Diegesis of Conon, for example, only from a summary 
made by Photius in the ninth century AD, supplemented by a few lines 
from a papyrus fragment (FGrH 26). 6 Such cohections, in straightfor- 
ward and generahy plain prose, without any attempt to achieve literary 
effects and usuahy lacking documented sources, seem to have been 
regarded not so much as the work of a single author to be preserved in 
its original form but rather as material available to subsequent gener- 
ations of readers for their own purposes. These later writers might be 
thought of more as compilers rather than authors, more interested in 
presenting the stories briefly and clearly than in achieving some sort of 
literary effect (there are no speeches, similes, or metaphors, for exam- 
ple) or elucidating the presentation of the myth in an earlier text of 
a poem or play. In compiling their own cohections, they seem not to 
have returned to the early literary sources used by their predecessors in 
the field, but simply to have drawn on the cohections of their predeces- 
sors. The original and complete versions of these texts thus disappeared, 
since the digests satisfied readers’ needs. It is difficult, therefore, always 
to attribute to any one author a particular cohection or to be confident 
about the purpose he had in cohecting, especiahy if the author is early in 
the history of writing in these genres, unless there is a specific statement 
about sources, goals, and authorship. 

A story from Phlegon of Tralles’ De mirabilium libellus ( Book of 
Marvels), compiled in the second century AD, illustrates the kind of 
lurid tales and the prosaic style typical of paradoxography, as weh as its 
links with mythography (chapter): 7 

In Messene not many years ago, as Apohonius says, it hap- 
pened that a big jar \pithos] was broken up by the force of 
a storm when a lot of water came pouring down. From it 
there feh out a triple head of human form. It had two rows 


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of teeth. When they tried to find out whose head it was, an 
inscription revealed it: for “Idas” had been inscribed. The 
Messenians prepared another jar [pithos] at public expense 
and put the head in it. They attended to the hero more 
carefully, since they understood that this was the one about 
whom Homer says [II. 9.558-60]: 

And of Idas, who of men on earth at that time 

Was the strongest. He drew his bow against lord 

Apollo for the sake of his lovely-ankled bride. 

In this anecdote, there are many cliches or elements of folktale — the 
storm that reveals an ancient artifact, a monstrous relic, an inscription, 
the identification of a Homeric hero’s remains, and the creation of a 
hero shrine. Whereas the Messenians draw on their own sense of the 
past, supported by their knowledge of the Homeric poems, to gain sta- 
tus in their world through mythology, ' s Phlegon of Tralles, loosely citing 
Apollonius, an earlier paradoxographer, as a source, tells the story as an 
example of the oddities in the world. Other tales in his collection con- 
cern the discovery of immense bones and coffins, the birth of deformed 
babies and animals to women, the birth of children to men, and the exis- 
tence of living centaurs. He offers no comment on any aspect of the 
stories that are in his collection, nothing about their believability, the 
evidence for them, or any context into which they might fit. 

When we read of Idas in the most famous book of mythogra- 
phy to survive from the ancient world, that identified as the work of 
Apollodorus, we first meet him in the narrative of important fami- 
lies in Calydon, preparatory to the story of the Calydonian boar hunt 
(1.7.8— 9): 

Evenus fathered a daughter, Marpessa, whom Apollo sought, 
but Idas, the son of Aphareus, took her away in a winged 
chariot from Poseidon. When Evenus pursued him in a char- 
iot, he came to the Lycormas river, but he could not overtake 
him, and so he killed his horses and threw himself into the 
river. And the river is called Evenus after him. Idas came to 
Messene and when Apollo came across him, he took away 
the girl. When they fought over marriage to the girl, Zeus 
separated them and allowed the girl to choose which one 


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Hellenistic Mythograpiiers 

she wished to live with. Since she was afraid that Apollo 
would abandon her when she grew old, she chose Idas as 
her husband. 

In Apollodorus’ narrative, the story of Idas is introduced by a long string 
of genealogical links (not translated here) and includes an etymologizing 
explanation for the name of a river before the tale of how Idas finally won 
his bride is told. Unlike Phlegon of Tralles, who seeks to highlight the 
grotesque element in stories, Apollodorus concentrates on genealogies, 
etymologies, and the deeds of heroes. The authors share a similar tone 
and style and compile their materials from already published works, but 
they have different interests. 

The Roots of Mythography 


Mythography and paradoxography both developed in the late fourth 
century BC, although the roots of each can be traced further back 
in Greek thought. The immediate impetus for the development of 
mythography lies in the awareness of their literary past and the desire 
to preserve it that Greeks felt by the end of the fourth century BC, 
but other genres, mythology and chronography, together with geneal- 
ogy and local history, also lay behind mythography. In some respects, 
mythology itself can be seen as a counterpart to chronography in early 
Greece, especially in the hexameter catalogs that recorded the names, 
families, and deeds of the gods and heroes. Organized roughly by gen- 
erations of families, such poems were a chronological guide of sorts to 
the Greek mythological past and enabled Greeks of historical times to 
link their families with gods and heroes. Catalog poetry also provided 
both material and a structuring principle to later prose works. 9 No ver- 
sion could be claimed as Panhellenic and definitive, but the poems did 
impose a structure on the stories. Two excerpts from the Hesiodic Cat- 
alog of Women illustrate the kind of information that such poems offered 
and how they might survive into later times (frr. i, 53): 

That Deucalion was the son of Prometheus and Pronoea 
Hesiod says in the first Catalogue, and also that Hellen was 
the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha. 

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About the Myrmidons Hesiod says thus: 

She became pregnant and bore Aeacus, delighting in 

But when he came to the boundary of lovely youth, 
he was distressed at being alone. The father of both 
men and gods made whatever ants there were 
on the beautiful island 
into men and deep-girdled women. 

These were the first to yoke rolling ships 
and the first to use sails, the wings of a sea-crossing 

These two fragments from the catalog, the first a paraphrase and the 
second a direct quotation, survive only because they became part of the 
scholia — marginal notes — to other poems: the genealogy of Deucalion 
and his son Hellen appears in a scholion to Apollonius of Rhodes’ 
Argonautica 3 .1086 and the origins of the Myrmidons are in a scholion 
to Pindar’s Nemean 3.21. Scholia such as these are an important source 
of obscure mythological stories for modern readers, since the texts from 
which they were taken do not often survive. 

Myths certainly appeared in prose texts before the Hellenistic 
world, but they lack, so far as one can tell from the fragmentary remains, 
the flavor of a compilation, of time spent in libraries gathering stories 
from different sources. Instead they often are part of a work that covers 
a wider chronological range than the era of gods and heroes, and that 
is not simply a catalog of mythological stories. 10 Mythological figures 
play an often major role in narratives of early prose writers such as 
Hecataeus (FGrH 1), Acusilaus (FGrH 2), Pherecydes (FGrH 3), Hel- 
lanicus (FGrH 4 and 323 a), and Herodotus. Later authors remark that 
Hellanicus and Acusilaus disagree about genealogies and that Acusilaus 
often corrects Hesiod, or they claim that Acusilaus merely reworked 
Hesiod in prose and then published the work as his (FGrH 2 T 5—6). 

Mythological figures turn up in these early prose works often 
because of the importance that the past played for Greeks in debates 
over contemporary matters. The political allegiance of the island of 
Salamis, for example, depended in part on where Trojan War figures, 
such as Ajax, were said to have been born, lived, or died. In his history 
of the Persian Wars, Herodotus crosses the divide between mythological 
and human time: 11 he opens his account with a look at the kidnapping of 
women such as Io, Europa, and Helen and ends with the second invasion 


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Hellenistic Mytliograpliers 

of Greece by Persians in 480-479 BC, perhaps about the time that he 
was born. Even as he spans these two kinds of time, he recognizes that 
they are in some way different, as he shows in his comment about “the 
human generation” in his discussion ofPolycrates (3.122.2). Pherecydes 
was said in his ten books of Histories or Genealogies to have traced the 
family of Thucydides the historian back through Miltiades to Philaeus, 
son of Ajax, and thus to Zeus (FGrH 3 F 2). 12 

The second genre that influences mythography is chronography. 
By the end of the fifth century BC, some Greek thinkers developed 
a view of the past as a time different from their own, one that could 
be studied through documents. Flellanicus of Lesbos produced lists of 
priestesses at the Argive Heraion (FGrH 4 F74-84) and of victors at the 
musical competitions of the Carnea (F85-86), Hippias of Elis gathered 
names of Olympic victors in the stadion (FGrH 6 F 2), and someone 
compiled a list of the archons in Athens and inscribed it on stone at 
the end of the fifth century -BC. 13 Aristotle, an innovator in the study 
of literary texts, was also innovative in his use of inscriptions to answer 
historical questions: he seems to have read through inscriptions at Delphi 
in order to compile a list of victors at the Pythian games, for example, and 
he, together with his adherents, gathered information from inscriptions 
in his project on the constitutions of Greek city states. Craterus of 
Macedon, perhaps part of Aristotle’s circle, even assembled and placed in 
chronological order public inscriptions from fifth-century-BC Athens, 
though no historian following him seems to have made much use of his 
sourcebook. 14 

The Bibliotheca of Apollodorus 

The most famous and influential, in modern times, of these mytho- 
logical compendia is the Bibliotheca — “Library.” 15 Although the Biblio- 
theca has been attributed to the famous second-century BC researcher 
Apollodorus of Athens, who did write on mythology, it is probably 
not his work, and no other author has been identified. Neverthe- 
less, the author is still referred to as Apollodorus. Photius, who read 
and excerpted Conon’s Diegesis, also knew of this work and said of it 
(. Bibliotheca 186) : 16 

It encompassed the antiquities of the Greeks, whatsoever 
time had brought them to believe about both gods and 
heroes, as well as the naming of rivers and lands and peoples 


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and cities as to their origins, and whatever else runs back 
into the past. It comes down to the Trojan War and it runs 
through both the battles with one another of certain men 
and their deeds, and their wanderings from Troy, especially of 
Odysseus with whom the account of the far past [archaeologia] 
stops. Most of the book is a summary account and not 
unhelpful to those seeking to understand the distant past. 

Photius neatly summarizes both the chronological range of Apol- 
lodorus’ work and its subject matter. The Bibliotheca, having devoted 
perhaps one-half of its narrative to the Trojan War, ends with Odysseus, 
whose final journey and death are the last story in the work. It agrees 
with other texts in seeing a division at this point in the Greek past. 
Along the way, the Bibliotheca offers explanations, often based either on 
folk etymology or on an event in a hero’s life, for names of rivers, towns, 
and regions. 

Apollodorus organizes his text by family and generations, as he 
makes clear in the opening to book 2, for example, (2.1.1): “Since we 
have worked our way through the family of Deucalion, we next speak of 
that of Inachus.” This chronographical element can be traced to works 
such as Hesiod’s Theogony or Catalog of Women, the works ofHecataeus 
and Acusilaus of Argos entitled Genealogies, and the attempts to place a 
chronological structure on the past. One consequence of this approach 
is the appearance of many long lists of names in the text - names of 
daughters and sons, names of heroes on expeditions (in the Trojan horse, 
for example), names of rivers, and names of hunting dogs. 

Unlike other mythographers, so far as we can tell, Apollodorus 
devotes a certain amount of space to citing sources. The references are 
brief and generally unspecific, as these sentences from his discussion of 
the family of Io reveal (2.1.3): 

Iasus was the son of Argos and Ismene, daughter of Asopus, 
and he [Iasus] was said to be the father of Io. But Castor, who 
wrote the Chronologies, and many of the tragedians say that 
Io was the daughter of Inachus. But Hesiod and Acusilaus 
say that she was the daughter of Peiren. . . . Pherecydes 
says [Argos] was the son of Arestor, but Asclepiades says 
of Inachus, and Cercops a son of Argos and Ismene, the 
daughter of Asopus. But Acusilaus says that he was born of 
the earth. 


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Hellenistic Mythographers 

This section of the text may contain rather more references than is 
usual in the Bibliotheca, but is otherwise very typical of the work. 
Apollodorus cites a wide range of sources, including hexameter poets 
(Hesiod, Homer, Eumelus, Panyassis, and Apollonius of Rhodes), lyric 
poets (Pindar and Simonides), tragedians (Euripides), and prose authors, 
(Acusilaus of Argos and Pherecydes, in particular.) He also cites authors 
such as Asclepiades of the late fourth century BC who gathered mytho- 
logical stories from the tragedians (FGrHi2). Most often, such references 
are to provide additional or conflicting versions of a story, frequently, 
as here, about the identification of a figure’s parents; Apollodorus does 
not argue for one version or another, but simply includes the different 
sources. His aim in citation may be completeness in source material, 
just as he is complete in his chronological range of stories. 

The Bibliotheca is difficult to date, though many scholars place it 
roughly in the first century AD . The author gives no explanation for its 
composition in a preface or anywhere else; modern writers refer to it as 
a “handbook,” which reflects modern attitudes toward it, but may not 
accurately convey its role when it was compiled. Finally, the work has 
not survived whole: we have a full text for most of the first three books 
that breaks off in the story of Theseus, but we have only epitomes - 
summaries - of the other seven books . 17 Nevertheless, because of its 
existence in a more complete form than any other mythography and 
because of the wide scope of the stories included, it is the best known 
and most used of such collections today. 

Other Mythographic Works 

Unlike the all-inclusive Apollodorus, other mythographers gathered 
together stories focused on a theme. Eratosthenes retold myths about 
stars in a work known as Catasterisms. Eratosthenes’ collection survives 
not in its original form, but only because it was helpful in under- 
standing Aratus’ astronomical poem, Phaenomena, and so it appears in 
the scholia to that work and in an epitome of star myths, as well as 
a couple of Latin texts. A manuscript, probably of the ninth century 
AD, preserves a wide range of texts, including the only surviving ver- 
sion of two mythographers: Parthenius of Nicaea of the first century 
BC, who collected myths of love, and Antoninus Liberalis, proba- 
bly of the second century AD, who collected myths culminating in 


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The Greek literary man Parthenius of Nicaea, who was brought to 
Rome after being taken captive during the Third Mithridatic War, 
composed a mythographic work known as the Erotica Pathemata. It is 
important not only as an example of mythography but of Greek prose 
from the middle of the first century BC. lS As Parthenius says in his 
dedicatory epistle to Cornelius Gallus, the Erotica Pathemata were thirty- 
six tales of love taken from Greek works, perhaps to be used by the 
Roman as a source for his poetry: 

Because, Cornelius Gallus, I thought that the collection of 
sufferings in love suited you very much, I have selected them 
and sent them to you in as abbreviated form as possible. For 
those among the present collection that occur in certain 
poets where they are not narrated in their own right, you 
will find out for the most part from what follows. 19 The ones 
which are most agreeable can be put by you into hexameters 
and elegiacs. Do not look down on them because there is not 
present that elegance which you seek. For I have collected 
them in the style of a little notebook, and they will serve 
you in a similar manner, perhaps. 

Parthenius emphasizes the fact that he has collected these tales from 
different authors and that he presents them to Gallus as source mate- 
rial, which the latter might versify. 20 The prose, Parthenius asserts, is 
straightforward and lacks any elegance or style, but this is of no conse- 
quence, since he expects that the stories will be reworked. The stories 
themselves often involve incest, homosexuality, and disasters associated 
with ill-fated love. Some are not set in the mythological world, but in 
the generations some time after, but those that take place in historical 
times seem as distant as those from the mythological era. 

Parthenius’ proposal to Gallus reflects two different, but paral- 
lel traditions. In first-century-BC Rome, prominent Romans might 
present a client, especially one with a reputation for literary or his- 
torical work, with notes for him to work up into a text that would 
enhance their joint reputations. Among others, Cicero sent notes on 
his year as consul to the historian Lucceius, in hopes of seeing them 
transformed into a history glorifying his deeds of 63 BC (Cicero, Ad 
familiares 5. 12. 10). The second tradition goes back to the work done in 
the Library at Alexandria and perhaps even to Peripatetic monographs, 


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Hellenistic Mytliograpiiers 

in which notes were abstracted either from lectures or books and then 
organized by topic. Such notes could then be put to use in any of several 
different genres, including mythography, paradoxography, ethnography, 
and even poetry. We might speculate both about the sources of Calli- 
machus’ poetry, for example, and the purposes to which he intended 
to put his Collection of Wonders . 21 

One, rather brief, tale from the Erotica Pathemata may serve as an 
example of the collection. Parthenius reports what happens to Odysseus 
after he returns to Ithaca and kills the suitors (III ): 22 

Odysseus did wrong not only to Aeolus [see tale II], but 
even after his wanderings, when he killed the suitors, he 
came to Epirus because of some oracles. There he seduced 
the daughter of Tyrimmas, Evippe; he had been very hos- 
pitable to him and had been his host with every kindness. 

The child born to Odysseus from this girl was Euryalus. His 
mother, when he came of age, sent him to Ithaca, having 
given him some tokens hidden in a wax tablet. As it hap- 
pened, Odysseus was not there then and Penelope discovered 
all these things, since she had already known of Odysseus’ 
love affair with Evippe. She persuaded Odysseus, when he 
came back, before he knew anything of these goings on, 
to kill Euryalus because he was plotting against him. And 
Odysseus, because he lacked strength of character and he 
was not otherwise reasonable, killed his son himself. And 
not much time after he did this, wounded by the prickle of 
a stingray, he died at the hands of his own offspring. 

Like Phlegon of Tralles’ story of Idas, Parthenius’ tale is full of folktale 
motifs. The tokens in a wax tablet remind us of the sandals and sword that 
served as tokens to identify the young Theseus, while Penelope’s actions 
recall those of Medea, who attempted to kill her stepson Theseus when 
he turned up in Athens, or Phaedra, whose false accusations against her 
stepson Hippolytus caused Theseus to bring about his death. Parthenius 
draws no moral, but presumably any poet who used this narrative could. 

The sources for Parthenius’ stories are not often identified by 
the author. Only in three instances does he briefly name them: in his 
story of Byblis, Parthenius states, “Nicaenetus says...” (XI); in that 
of Antheus, he prefaces some verses that he quotes with the name of 
Alexander the Aetolian (XIV); similarly, in the story of Corythus, he 
prefaces a quotation of verses with the name of Nicander (XXXIV). 

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An oddity of the single manuscript that preserves the Erotica Pathemata 
is the presence of marginal notes, in the same hand as that of the main 
text, that name authors and works that also tell the story. 23 Thus, for the 
tale of Odysseus quoted above, the marginal note remarks, “Sophocles 
tells the story [ historei ] in his Euryalus.” Where these attributions can be 
checked, they seem to be accurate, but this does not necessarily mean 
that Parthenius drew either on that text or a summary of it; an earlier 
author can tell the same story as a later one without being the source 
for it. Notably, the three names mentioned by Parthenius in XI, XIV, 
and XXXIV do not appear in the marginal notes for those stories. 

Antoninus Liberalis 

Antoninus Liberalis’ collection of forty-one stories all culminate in 
metamorphosis, which is visited by the gods on a human either as a 
punishment for outrageous behavior or as a release from some sort of 
disaster. Some of his tales explain the establishment of a cult, and his 
language can be repetitive. Typical is this story about the war between 
the pygmies and cranes with its concluding remark that provides the 
link to a story familiar to his readers (XVI): 24 

Among the people known as pygmies there was a girl named 
Oenoe, who was not without beauty, but who was unpleas- 
ant in character and arrogant. She had no thought for either 
Artemis or Hera. After she was married to Nicodamas, a rea- 
sonable and upright citizen, she gave birth to a son, Mopsus. 

And to her all the pygmies because of their good nature 
took very many presents for the birth of her son. But Hera, 
who was angered at Oenoe, because she did not honor her, 
made her into a crane, lengthened her neck, and created a 
lofty-flying bird. And she brought on a war between Oenoe 
and the pygmies. Oenoe, on account of her love for her 
son Mopsus, kept on flying around their houses and did not 
cease. The pygmies armed themselves and pursued her. And 
from then until now there has been war between the pygmies 
and the cranes. 

Antoninus Liberalis seems to have drawn on two sources almost exclu- 
sively. FromBoios’ Ornithogonia (FGrH 328 F 214), he took tales involv- 
ing birds, and from Nicander’s Metamorphoses came stories not only 


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Hellenistic Mytliograpiiers 

about birds, but also animals, trees, and stones. 25 Like Parthenius, Anton- 
inus Liberalis’ sources - or authors who told the same tales - were also 
identified in marginal notes. 


About other collections it is impossible to say what their purpose or focus 
was. Conon ’s Diegesis is a good example of such a miscellany. 26 Alive 
during the reign of Augustus, Conon assembled some fifty stories that 
lack any thematic link or any other discernable organizational principle, 
at least as far as can be determined from the later summary of it by 
Photius. The dedication of the work to King Archilaus of Cappadocia 
offers no hint of its structure or purpose (FGrH 26 Ti). There are 
myths that explain the foundation of cities and establishment of cults, 
stories oflove, and stories that explain proverbs or place names, and even 
three examples of paradoxography. 27 Perhaps of most interest are the 
three stories preserved in no other source: the foundation of Olynthus, 
the establishment at Ephesus of the cult of Apollo Gypaieus, and how 
the oracle of Apollo at Didyma was transferred from Branchus to the 
Evangelidae. Conon gives the myth behind Olynthus (FGrH 26 F 1 

The fourth book of the Diegesis reports on the affairs con- 
cerning the city of Olynthus and Strymon, king of the Thra- 
cians, from whom the ancient Eioneus River took its name. 

And that there were three sons of his, Brangas and Rhesus 
and Olynthus. And Rhesus, who fought at Troy for Priam 
was killed at the hands of Diomedes. Olynthus, who fought 
with a lion unintentionally, died on a hunt. And Brangas, 
his brother, after he lamented greatly his misfortune, buried 
Olynthus on the spot where he died. When he came into 
Sithonia, he founded a prosperous and great city, which he 
called Olynthus after the boy. 

The details of the story are not unique and could be paralleled from 
many other such tales, but no other source gives this foundation myth 
for Olynthus. Unfortunately for modern scholars interested in such 
matters, Conon seems not to have identified his sources. Completely 
absent from Conon’s text is any story in which a god is a major 


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Homeric Myth and Scholarship 

The Homeric poems received the greatest attention from scholars over 
the centuries, attention that was directed both to explicating the lan- 
guage and meter of the epics and to elucidating some of the more 
obscure figures. It is difficult to say in exactly what form these studies 
were originally published, whether texts of the poems were accompa- 
nied by commentaries or whether texts were prepared separately from 
commentaries and essays on various subjects. Nothing has come down 
to us in its original form, and we are often dependent either on compila- 
tions and abridgements of works or on hostile remarks about someone’s 
scholarship as we try to reconstruct this scholarship. Nor is it always cer- 
tain for whom these treatises were written: although some texts were 
clearly directed to other scholars and some to students just learning to 
read the poems, 28 many surviving fragments of Homeric scholarship are 
not obviously designed for a particular audience. Part of the problem 
may be yet again the endless working and reworking of previous mate- 
rial, recasting, for example, comments that were originally designed for 
scholars so that they might be useful to students. Nonetheless, mythog- 
raphers clearly found much to interest them in the Homeric poems; 
their work is preserved for us today in the scholia, particularly the so- 
called D scholia, the scholia minora, and in independent texts such as 
the Mythographus Homericus. 29 

The Mythographus Homericus is an example of Hellenistic schol- 
arship on the mythological stories in the Homeric epics. Although it 
existed for the first five centuries of our era as a text in its own right, it 
has not been published as such in our time. 30 Study of it is complicated 
by the wide variety of forms in which fragments have survived: the 
manuscript tradition must be supplemented with fragments in papyri 
and on ostraca. But the basic structure and purpose of the collection are 
clear: to elucidate the Homeric epics by giving brief versions of myths 
wherever relevant. The stories are introduced by a word or phrase from 
the poem, followed by the comment or mythological tale, and the entry 
concludes most often with a subscription in which an authority is cited. 
Within the Iliadic D scholia, in which the Mythographus Homericus 
has become embedded, there are approximately 200 of these historiae, 
as they are known; there are many fewer for the Odyssey. 

Preserved in the D scholia and probably from the Mythogra- 
phus Homericus is, for example, a different version of the story told 
in the Iliad about the rebellion of the gods against Zeus. 31 In the Iliad, 
Hera, Poseidon, and Athena are identified as the gods who sought 


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Hellenistic Mythographers 

to overthrow Zeus (1.399—400). In a long narrative of this rebellion, 
a D scholion names the ringleaders: “Poseidon and Hera and Apollo 
and Athena plotted to bind him and then subdue him.” The scho- 
lion describes punishment taken by Zeus against only three of the 
gods; Athena seems to escape their fate. At the end of the entry comes 
this statement about the source of the story: “Didymus tells the story 
[historef].” This scholion does not discuss the significance of the partic- 
ipation of the various gods, as other scholia on the lines do, and seems 
to conflate versions without regard for the differences. But it does cite 
a learned source for the variant, the Homeric commentator Didymus 
of the first century BC, and it uses the verb historei, which we have 
already seen in the marginal notes to the mythographies of Parthenius 
and Antoninus Liberalis. 

Modern scholars have identified a number of writers of the Hellenistic 
era as mythographers, writers who collected stories of gods and heroes 
from a variety of sources and presented them in unadorned prose nar- 
ratives. Almost none of these mythographers survives intact; for most, 
we have either fragments cited in later authors, often in scholia, or only 
a name with or without a book title. This means that we must depend 
on reconstruction and analogy in our studies of these authors, but they 
form an interesting and neglected part of the Hellenistic literary culture. 

Mythographies seem to have been compiled for a wide range of 
purposes. They could serve a scholarly function, providing readers of 
archaic and classical poetry with explanations of myths and rituals, and 
offering explanations for place names. In this regard, they were the 
scholarly counterpart of essays on grammar and language in the early 
poets. Some of the material from these mythographies seems to have 
been abstracted and reworked for students just beginning to read poets 
like Homer. Such students needed more basic help than scholars, so 
were given stories of the gods as well as explanations of verb forms and 
glossaries for obscure and difficult words. Mythographies might also 
have provided reading material which was interesting, but not taxing to 
the reader. In this guise, it could be seen as a parallel to paradoxography, 
in which oddities from the natural world were compiled for reading 

The rich and complex Hellenistic world fostered the rise of literary 
scholarship and the development of new genres. Readers became aware 
of new texts and authors, as well as different versions of works already 
well known. They drew from these texts, once they were accessible, 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

material that could be organized and juxtaposed in new ways. Thus, 
compilers of paradoxographies showed their readers bizarre phenom- 
ena and compilers of mythographies enabled readers either to explore 
the whole of the mythological past or to read stories focused on a 

Modern readers of mythographies are able to discover the variety 
and obscurity of Greek myth. These collections can illuminate other- 
wise mysterious references in poets and preserve local traditions which 
might vary greatly from a Panhellenic version. These texts enable us to 
have a greater understanding of the Hellenistic literary world, which 
we can get in no other way. 

Further Reading 

To learn more about Hellenistic mythography, the best place to begin 
is Albert Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek Mythography,” in Jan 
Bremmer, ed., Interpretations of Greek Mythology (London: Croom Helm, 
1987) 242—77. For accessible translations of some of the most important 
texts, see Michael Simpson, trans., Gods and Heroes of the Greeks: The 
Library of Apollodorus (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 
1976); William Hansen, ed. and trans., Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular 
Literature (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998); William 
Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels (Exeter: University of Exeter 
Press, 1996). 


1 See, for example, Strabo 13. 1.54 (= C608), Plutarch, Life of Sulla 26.1—2, and 
Athenaeus 5.2i4d— e for different versions of the fate of Aristotle’s books. 

2 This title is not that given to the work by Callimachus, but a descriptive title given 
to it by a later author. We do not know what Callimachus called his catalog, which 
also had the much shorter title Pinakes. On Callimachus as a bibliographer, see 
Rudolf Blum, trans. by Hans H. Wellisch, Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library 
and the Origins of Bibliography (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991) 
124-60, esp. 150-60. 

3 See Albert Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek Mythography,” in Jan 
Bremmer, ed., Interpretations of Greek Mythology (London: Croom Helm, 1987): 
242—77, for an invaluable introduction to the topic. His definition of mythogra- 
phy is worth quoting (243): “Once a myth became fixed in the literary tradition, 
it would either survive indefinitely along with the poem, play or other work of 
literature in which it was recorded, or it would eventually perish together with that 
record, unless some interested scholar saved it for posterity by including it in a col- 
lection of various myths. Such collectors of myths, who wrote down the mythical 


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Hellenistic Mythographers 

stories in plain prose, are called mythographers, and their collective product is 
mythography, a handmaiden of mythology.” 

4 See Blum, Kallimachos, 134. 

5 See Alexander Giannini, Paradoxographorum Graecorum Reliquiae (Milan: Instituto 
Editoriale Italiano, 1965). 

6 Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek Mythography,” 244—7, has a very useful 
introduction to Conon. 

7 See William Hansen, ed., Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (Blooming- 
ton, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998): 249—58. For a complete translation of 
Phlegon of Tralles’ work, see William Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels 
(Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996). 

8 See Carolyn Higbie, The Lindian Chronicle and the Greek Creation of Their Past 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); also “Ancient Greek Archaeology?”, 
forthcoming in the Acta of the 16th International Congress of Classical Archae- 

9 See M. L. West, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek 
Mythography,” 248-9. 

10 As Robert L. Fowler states, “‘mythography’ is not a fifth-century genre” ( Early 
Greek Mythography, vol. 1 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000]: xxvii). Fowler 
includes 29 authors in his edition of Greek mythographers up to the early fourth 
century BC; see his discussion of his choices in the Introduction to his text, xxvii— 
xxxviii. He excludes any text that records events after the Ionian migration and 
the return of the Heraclidae (xxx). 

11 See Fowler, Early Greek Mythography, xxx— xxxi. 

12 See Carolyn Higbie, “The Bones of a Hero, the Ashes of a Politician: Athens, 
Salamis, and the Usable Past,” Classical Antiquity 16 (1997): 279—308; Rosalind 
Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge, UK: 
Cambridge University Press, 1989): 161—95. 

13 Russell Meiggs and David Lewis, eds., A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to 
the End of the Fifth Century BC (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969): no. 6. For 
a translation, see Charles W. Fornara, ed. and trans., Archaic Times to the End of the 
Peloponnesian War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977): no. 23. 

14 See Carolyn Higbie, “Craterus and the Use of Inscriptions in Ancient Scholarship,” 
TAPA 129 (1999): 43—83- 

15 See Aubrey Diller, “The Text History of the Bibliotheca of Pseudo- Apollodorus,” 
TAPA 66 (1935): 296—313; M. H. A. L. H. Van der Valk, “On Apollodori Bib- 
liotheca,” REG 71 (1958): 100— 168; Marc Huys, “125 Years of Scholarship on 
Apollodoros the Mythographer: a Bibliographical Survey,” L’Antiquite Classique 

66 (1997): 3I9-5I- 

16 See Rene Henry, Photius, Bibliotheque, 3 vols. (Paris: Bude, 1962). 

17 Epitomes became an important part of literary life from the time of the Hellenistic 
world. There were even epitomes of epitomes, as in the case of the Historia animal- 
ium, epitomized by Aristophanes of Byzantium, which in its turn was epitomized 
by Sopater. 

18 SeeJ. L. Lightfoot, Parthenius ofNicaea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 

19 I have taken the translation of this difficult and corrupt sentence from Lightfoot, 
Parthenius; see her discussion in the commentary ad loc. 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

20 See Lightfoot, Parthenius, 74, 217—24, on the significance of this dedication and 
epistolary preface. 

21 See Lightfoot, Parthenius, 217—20. 

22 See Lightfoot’s discussion of this story in her commentary ad loc. 

23 These notes also survive for the mythography of Antoninus Liberalis. See Lightfoot, 
Parthenius, 246— 56 and 303—5. 

24 See Manolis Papathomopoulos, Antoninus Liberalis, Les Metamorphoses (Paris: Bude, 

25 On Nicander, see A. S. F. Gow and A. F. Scholfield, Nicander: The Poems and Poetical 
Fragments (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1953): 205—8. On Boios, 
Nicander, and Antoninus Liberalis, see P. M. C. Forbes Irving, Metamorphosis in 
Greek Myths (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990): 20—36. 

26 See Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek Mythography,” 244—7. 

27 See Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek Mythography,” 268—9. 

28 On the sort of help that a student beginning to read Homer was given in 
the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, see Teresa Morgan, Literate Education in the 
Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 
166; also Raffaella Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic 
and Roman Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001): 140—42, 204—5. 

29 See Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind, 207—8, for a brief introduction. More infor- 
mation is to be found in Franco Montanari, “The Mythographus Homericus,” in 
eds. J. G. J. Abbenes, S. R. Slings, and I. Sluiter, Greek Literary Theory after Aristotle 
(Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1995): 135—72. 

30 See Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek Mythography,” 243 and fn. 5. 

31 See Montanari, “The Mythographus Homericus,” 158—61. 


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Part Two 


‘Alas! My son,’ quoth King Aigeus, heaving a long sigh, ‘here is a very 
lamentable matter in hand! This is the woefullest anniversary in the 
whole year. It is the day when we annually draw lots to see which 
of the youths and maidens of Athens shall go to be devoured by the 
horrible Minotaur!’ 

‘The Minotaur!’ exclaimed Prince Theseus; and like a brave young 
prince as he was, he put his hand to the hilt of his sword. ‘What kind 
of a monster may that be? Is it not possible, at the risk of one’s life, to 
slay him?’ 

But King Aigeus shook his venerable head, and to convince The- 
seus that it was quite a hopeless case, he gave him an explanation of the 
whole affair. . . . 

But when Theseus heard the story, he straightened himself up, 
so that he seemed taller than ever before; and as for his face, it was 
indignant, despiteful, bold, tender, and compassionate, all in one look. 

‘Let the people of Athens, this year, draw lots for only six young 
men, instead of seven,’ said he. ‘I will myself be the seventh; and let the 
Minotaur devour me, if he can!’ . . . 

Just as Prince Theseus was going on board, his father bethought 
himself of one last word to say. 

‘My beloved son,’ said he, grasping the prince’s hand, ‘you observe 
that the sails of this vessel are black; as indeed they ought to be, since it 
goes upon a voyage of sorrow and despair. Now, being weighed down 
with infirmities, I know not whether I can survive till the vessel shall 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

return. But, as long as I do live, I shall creep daily to the top of yonder 
cliff, to watch if there be a sail upon the sea. And, dearest Theseus, if by 
some happy chance you should escape the jaws of the Minotaur, then 
tear down those dismal sails, and hoist others that shall be bright as the 
sunshine. Beholding them on the horizon, myself and all the people 
will know that you are coming back victorious, and will welcome you 
with such a festal uproar as Athens never heard before.’ 

Theseus promised he would do so. Then, going on board, the 
mariners trimmed the vessel’s black sails to the wind, which blew faintly 
off the shore, being pretty much made up of the sighs that everybody 
kept pouring forth on this melancholy occasion. . . . 

No sooner had they entered the harbour than a party of the guards 
of King Minos came down to the waterside, and took charge of the 
fourteen young men and damsels. Surrounded by these armed warriors, 
Prince Theseus and his companions were led to the king’s palace, and 
ushered into his presence. . . . 

‘Young man,’ asked he, with his stern voice, ‘are you not appalled 
at the certainty of being devoured by this terrible Minotaur?’ 

‘I have offered my life in a good cause,’ answered Theseus, ‘and 
therefore I give it freely and gladly. . . . Sitting there on thy golden throne, 
and in thy robes of majesty, I tell thee to thy face, King Minos, thou art 
a more hideous monster than the Minotaur himself!’ 

‘Aha! Do you think me so?’ cried the king, laughing in his cruel 
way. ‘Tomorrow, at breakfast-time, you shall have an opportunity of 
judging which is the greater monster, the Minotaur or the king! Take 
them away, guards; and let this free-spoken youth be the Minotaur’s first 
morsel! . . . 

Without more words on either side, there ensued the most awful 
fight between Theseus and the Minotaur that ever happened beneath 
the sun or moon. ... At last, the Minotaur made a run at Theseus, grazed 
his left side with his horn, and flung him down; and, thinking that he 
had stabbed him to the heart, he cut a great caper in the air, opened 
his bull mouth from ear to ear, and prepared to snap his head off. But 
Theseus by this time had leaped up, and caught the monster off his 
guard. Fetching a sword-stroke at him with all his force, he hit him fair 
upon the neck, and made his bull head skip six yards from his human 
body, which fell down flat upon the ground. . . . 

On the homeward voyage the fourteen youths and damsels were 
in excellent spirits, as you will easily suppose. They spent most of their 


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Response, Integration, Representation 

time in dancing, unless the sidelong breeze made the deck slope too 
much. In due season they came within sight of the coast of Attica, which 
was their native country. But here, I am grieved to tell you, happened 
a sad misfortune. 

You will remember (what Theseus unfortunately forgot) that his 
father, King yEgeus, had enjoined it upon him to hoist sunshiny sails, 
instead of black ones, in case he should overcome the Minotaur, and 
return victorious. In the joy of their success, however, and amidst the 
sports, dancing, and other merriment, with which these young folks 
wore away the time, they never once thought whether their sails were 
black, white, or rainbow-coloured, and indeed, left it entirely to the 
mariners whether they had any sails at all. Thus the vessel returned, 
like a raven, with the same sable wings that had wafted her away. But 
poor King zEgeus, day after day, infirm as he was, had climbed to the 
summit of a cliff that overhung the sea, and there sat watching for 
Prince Theseus, homeward bound; and no sooner did he behold the 
fatal blackness of the sails, than he concluded that his dear son, whom 
he loved so much and felt so proud of, had been eaten by the Minotaur. 
He could not bear the thought of living any longer; so, first flinging his 
crown and sceptre into the sea (useless baubles that they were to him 
now!), KingzEgeus merely stooped forward, and fell headlong over the 
cliff, and was drowned, poor soul, in the waves that foamed at its base. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne; from “The Minotaur,” Tanglewood Tates (1853) 

7 Theseus was included in the third tribute sent to the Minotaur, 
or, as some say, he offered himself as a volunteer. Since the ship had a 
black sail, Aegeus commanded his son, if he should return alive, to rig 
the ship with white sails. 

8 When Theseus arrived in Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, 
being romantically inclined toward him, promised to help him if he 
would agree to take her away to Athens and then make her his wife. 
With Theseus affirming upon an oath that he would do that, Ariadne 
begged Daedalus to disclose the way out of the Labyrinth. 

following his advice, she gave Theseus some thread as he entered 
the maze; this he attached to the door and then went in, trailing the 
thread behind him. Coming upon the Minotaur in the last part of the 
Labyrinth, Theseus killed him, pounding him with his fists, and then 
made his way out, drawing up the thread again. During the night he 
arrived at Naxos with Ariadne and the Athenian youths. There Dionysus 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

fell in love with Ariadne and took her away; carrying her to Lemnos, 
he had intercourse with her and fathered Thoas, Staphylus, Oenopion, 
and Peparethus. 

10 Grieving over Ariadne, Theseus forgot to rig the ship with white 
sails as he made for the harbor. From the Acropolis, Aegeus saw that the 
ship carried a black sail and imagining that Theseus had been killed, he 
threw himself off and so passed from this life. 

"Theseus succeeded to the kingship of Athens and killed the sons 
of Pallas — numbering fifty. In the same way, any who wanted to rebel 
were killed by him, and he alone held all power. 

Apollodorus, Bibliotheca Epit. 1.7— n 


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8: Greek Mytei and Greek 

Claude Calame 

N either “myth” nor “religion” constitutes a category native to 
Greek thought. Neither myth nor religion were conceived of 
as such by the Greeks - neither myth as a corpus of (fabu- 
lous) tales of gods and heroes dependent on a frame of comprehen- 
sive thought, nor religion as a set of beliefs and practices relative to a 
divine configuration (not even in the Roman sense of regulated cult 
observance ). 1 But, in the case of the former, we have a series of nar- 
ratives with argumentative and pragmatic value that describe, in poetic 
form, the heroic past of Greek cities or of the “Greek” community 
(experienced as to Hellenikon only from Herodotus on), narratives that, 
recited or sung as palaia or arkhafa, make reference to the ancient his- 
tory of Greece and correspond to muthoi. In the case of the latter, we 
can think in terms of divine and heroic figures, in terms of civic spaces 
reserved for them, and in terms of the numerous ritual practices that 
sought, through offerings of various types, to influence divine inter- 
vention in the present: ta hiera (‘offerings, victims’), ta minima (‘what 
is prescribed’; hence ‘customs, rites’) to cite only terms related to sac- 
rificial offerings and to the implicit rules animating cult practices, and 
to underscore that these practices are always integrated into the calen- 
dar that gives rhythm to the religious and political life of each city, in 
conjunction with the particular assemblage of gods and heroes who are 
honored there . 2 

No mythology, then - neither as an established narrative con- 
sciousness, nor as a framework of thought, unless considered in the form 
of manuals of mythography, such as the one in the Library attributed to 
Apollodorus. Such a collection of heroic intrigues, organized according 


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to their protagonists’ genealogical relationships, a systematic catalog of 
proper names evoking a bygone epic past, was evidently destined for 
a reading public of erudite poets or inquisitive minds in large Greek 
cities where political institutions and civic relationships had weakened 
and the heroic past of classical Greece provided reference points in 
a quest for renewed identity . 3 In particular, as muthoi, the narrative 
actions of Greek gods and heroes are not simply demonstrated and 
modeled by different poetic and historiographic forms, but they exist 
in these forms alone; such concrete manifestations, by virtue of their 
pragmatic dimension, guarantee that these narrative actions retain the 
flexibility to fulfill their social, religious, and ideological function and 

Whether it be the Homeric Hymns, preludes addressed to a god in 
order to introduce the rhapsodic recitation of Homeric poems into his 
cult, or Sappho’s Epithalamia, designed to punctuate the different ritual 
moments of the marriage ceremony by commemorating the misfor- 
tunes of the hero Hymenaeus, or Bacchylides’ profoundly narrative, if 
not outright dramatic, Dithyrambs for singing an episode of the heroic 
biography of hero-founders in local cult, or the often anonymous cult 
hymns that, as at Delphi or Epidaurus, formed an integral part of the 
celebration of a titular god by singing his divine biography, or Pindar’s 
Epinicia, which insert into the observance of a local cult the choral cel- 
ebration of a victory at the Panhellenic games by allusions to the great 
deeds of the heroes of epic cycles, not to mention the hymnic prayers 
or paeans composed by many melic poets - there exists no story of gods 
or heroes that does not come to the public in a ritualized discursive 
form. Full of self-referential gestures by which the poet or the choral 
group allude to the singing activity in which they are engaged — hie et 
nunc (‘here and now’) — the poems belonging in particular to the major 
genre of melos present themselves as cult acts, inscribed in religious prac- 
tices celebrating the gods and heroes of the city. By the intermediary of 
hymnic proems that present epic recitation as an offering to a divinity in 
a particular cult, this is also the case of rhapsodic recitation of Homeric 
poems - the Iliad or the Odyssey. And the great heroic plots that are 
dramatized on the Attic stage in the classical tragedies do not escape this 
aspect of the religious act, since the performances of tragedies, as well 
as the civic performance of dithyrambs, are presented as offerings: in 
the shadow of the Acropolis, at the sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus, 
they were mimed, sung, and danced on the occasion of one of the 
greatest celebrations of the festal Athenian calendar . 4 The works of the 


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Greek Myth and Greek Religion 

logographers and historiographers contemporary with the great 
tragedies of classical Athens, even if they abandoned the rhythmic and 
ritualized forms of poetry, remain inscribed in constant efforts to refor- 
mulate a heroic past and adapt it to the exigencies of a social and political 
present strongly marked by the influence of the gods and by ritual and 
discursive acts used to communicate with them . 5 

Notably, under the influence of the cult celebrations imparting 
rhythm to the annual calendar, the social life of the various groups 
forming the civic community carries, in its relationships with its heroic 
past, the imprint of practices that seem, at least to us, to be “religious” in 
nature and of discursive forms to which correspond certain ritual acts. 
In effect, the retelling of episodes of the great epic cycles, as well as the 
self-referential means and performative indices of such poetic forms, are 
inscribed in the rules of the genre. Divided between verbal regularities, 
such as the forms for invoking a divinity, and ritual rules related to the 
musical “performance” of a poem, these rules assure the pragmatic link 
that transforms the narrative song of the “myth” into a ritual act inserted 
into a particular cult. Thus it is impossible to distinguish, as scholars 
often do in the wake of the idealistic “evolutionism” of Ernst Cassirer, 
between myth and language : 6 what our modern anthropological frame 
of mind has identified as myth exists only in the forms of discourse that 
connect pragmatic function and religious practice. 

In a manner undoubtedly paradoxical, this holds true particu- 
larly for Attic tragedy, a seemingly inexhaustible source of the stories 
that we have amassed as Greek “mythology.” Even if it is performed 
ritually within the frame of the aforementioned great cult and music 
festival dedicated to Dionysus (or probably because it is dedicated to 
this god), tragedy frequently offers in the mimetic representation of a 
heroic action a mise en question of epic values, if not of the powers of the 
gods themselves, by a dramatic mirroring of the social rules and political 
institutions of the present. The religious dimension of classical tragedy 
not only appears in the rituality proper of the musical competition of 
the Great Dionysia and in the ritual forms, both in the orchestra and 
on the stage, which, in turn, become integrated into the heroic action, 
but also manifests itself in the frequently aetiological conclusions of the 
individual plays. 

Such is the case of Euripides’ Hippolytus, performed during the ini- 
tial years of the Peloponnesian War. This tragedy is only the reworking 
of an earlier drama dedicated to the same plot — one that Aristophanes 
seems to have criticized for its having shown Phaedra in an unflattering 

26 1 

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light. Notwithstanding the literary conceit of using a written message 
to attenuate Phaedra’s accusation of Hippolytus and salvage her honor, 
the deleterious love that Aphrodite inspired in the heart of a mature 
wife for her stepson opens the way for Artemis to offer redress for the 
misfortunes that the young man had endured. His disappearance would 
soon come to constitute the occasion of the highest cult honors in the 
city of Troezen, and in a heroizing process common in classical Greece, 
each year young girls entering into marriage would commemorate, with 
songs and offerings, the drama of his death due to a love offered too 
exclusively to Artemis, the virgin . 7 Pausanias, in fact, tells us that the 
city of Troezen celebrated the memory of Hippolytus with various rit- 
uals, performed in the sanctuary and before the temple, consecrated to 
the deified young hero. Thus the epic intrigue staged by Euripides gave 
birth to a cult, instituted by Artemis herself, that corresponds to a ritual 
practice contemporary with the staging of the drama. This strong rela- 
tionship between religious observance and the dramatic performance 
of a heroic story is especiahy marked at the beginning of the tragedy 
when Hippolytus assumes the role of khoregos (‘leader of the chorus’) 
among his companions, and the group performs a processional song and 
ritual to accompany the offering of a garland of pure flowers to Artemis. 
Moreover, near the end of its participation in the ceremony, the chorus 
of the women of Troezen evokes the ritual functions assumed by the 
young man in his ambiguous devotion to the virgin goddess . 8 The pro- 
cess of explication and aetiological legitimization occurs through poetic 
expression; this poetic expression follows the rules of genre, respecting 
the conventions of a performative melic form and of a dramatization that 
itself is a ritual. Indeed, it is the pragmatic dimension of the tragic form 
that ahows a traditional story - one that sets on stage the heroes Hip- 
polytus, Phaedra, and Theseus in the clutches of Artemis, Aphrodite, 
and Poseidon - to become the foundation-legend of a religious practice 
alive both in Troezen, the place of the unfolding heroic drama, and in 
Athens, the city where spectators celebrate Dionysus Eleuthereus at his 

This is the relationship between “Greek myth” and “Greek reli- 
gion” that I would like to explore here through a series of five cases. 
In each case, we can see how an individual heroic tale is cahed upon 
to legitimate a particular cult practice through an intermediary poetic 
form that influences both the narrative and semantic characteristics of 
the account and the religious and political conception underlying the 
ritual concerned . 9 


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The Hymn of the Abduction of 
Persephone and the Founding of a Cult: 
The Mysteries of Eleusis 

Seduced by the mysterious charm of the narcissus while gathering flow- 
ers in a green pasture with her companions, Persephone, daughter of 
Zeus and Demeter, is kidnapped by Aidoneus (the god Hades), lord 
of the Underworld, and dragged into the gloom of Hades (the place) . 
Heartbroken, Demeter sets out at once to search for her daughter and 
is finally informed by Hecate and then by the Sun of the fate reserved 
for the young virgin — by the will of Zeus. As she leaves Olympus in 
a fit of anger and grief, taking the form of an old woman, the god- 
dess encounters at Eleusis the daughters of Celeus, king of that place. 
Manifest through a quasi-epiphany, she becomes the nurse of the fam- 
ily’s youngest son, Demophon, whom she secretly attempts to render 
immortal by anointing him with ambrosia and hiding him within fire. 
Surprised by Metaneira, the child’s mother, Demeter is forced to reveal 
her divine nature and insists that a sanctuary be built in her honor. 
Celeus and his people set out to construct a temple, where the goddess 
of agriculture will shut herself in, leaving the fields infertile and men 
devoid of the fruits of the earth. Fearful of being deprived of the honors 
owed to him by mortals, Zeus intervenes, ordering Hermes to bring 
Persephone back from the land of the dead. Hades consents only after 
having made the young woman ingest the pomegranate seed of mem- 
ory. From that time on, Persephone will spend two-thirds of the year on 
Olympus in the company of her mother and return for the remaining 
one -third to Hades. When Zeus thus acquiesced to Demeter, the earth 
flowered again at last and produced the most beautiful grains: 

Straightaway, Demeter made the tilled and fecund earth bear 

The entirety of the vast earth became heavy with plants and 

She went to teach - to the kings who administer justice, 

To Triptolemus and to Diodes, the able horseman, 

To the powerful Eumolpus and to Celeus the leader of the 
people - 

The celebration of the sacred rites; 

She revealed to them the beautiful mysteries 

The august acts that it is impossible to transgress, to uncover, 


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To divulge. Because great is the respect that the gods inspire, 
rendering us mute. 

Happy is he who, among the men on earth, has seen these things; 

But he who is not initiated into the sacred rites, he who has no 
part in them 

Does not share the same destiny, even when departed into the 
gloomy darkness . 10 

From dresmosune (‘service, celebration’) to hiera (‘sacred rites’) and 
from orgia (‘ritual actions, mysteries’) to ateles (‘not initiated’), all the 
terms used to designate the acts taught by Demeter in gratitude for the 
return of her daughter and the concomitant renewal of the fertile fields 
are technical terms. They allude to the institution of the different ritual 
acts composing a cult, and more precisely a mystery cult . 11 It falls to 
Demeter to inaugurate, under her own aegis and that of her daughter 
Persephone, the famous Mysteries of Eleusis, representing one of the 
preeminent moments in the cult calendar of classical Athens. From the 
perspective of an epic and rhapsodic narrative that unfolds in a four- 
hundred-line Homeric Hymn, the institution of the cult of the Mysteries 
of Eleusis by Demeter herself forms the coda of the action. According to 
the narrative logic that gives the account of this divine act its coherence, 
to the moment of rupture at the beginning — which the abduction 
of Persephone and the anger of Demeter that interrupts the cycle of 
agricultural production represent - there corresponds, at the end, the 
reestablishment of the fecundity of the fields and the institution of a cult 
in recognition of the assistance that the kings of Eleusis have provided 
for the goddess. 

Yet the “sanctioning” part of the narrative would be incomplete 
if the poem did not move from the past tense of the divine act to the 
present tense of enunciation. In effect, the ritual acts that Persephone’s 
mother initiated at Eleusis would have no comprehensible meaning 
if the end of the story, recounted in the aorist (past) tense of Greek, 
did not lead, via the expression “happy is he who . . . ,” to an initial 
makarismos (‘blessing’) in the present tense: thanks to the completion of 
the rites inaugurated by the goddess in the narrative past tense, mortals 
can henceforth enjoy, as much on earth as in Hades, a more favor- 
able destiny. That is to say, the present moment of the ritual is inte- 
grated into the logic of the narrative and divine action in the past: not 
only has Demeter reestablished communication between the terrestrial 
sphere and Olympus, but initiation into the mysteries uses ritual to 
reestablish the relationship between life on earth and the underworld, 


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a relationship that had been disturbed by the violent kidnapping of the 
young Persephone. The life that Persephone shares between Olympus, 
in the company of the gods, and Hades, in the midst of the dead, evokes 
the condition of mortal men who can communicate with the gods and 
share in their privileges, yet remain destined for an inevitable sojourn 
in Hades, on the misty obscurity of which initiation into the mysteries 
can shed some light. 

In the transition from “myth” to “rite,” the role of aetiology 
renders the ritual and initiation rites taught by the deity herself more 
than a simple mimetic dramatization of the rape of Persephone. By the 
performance of specific acts dedicated to the two divine protagonists 
of the narrative action, the ritual becomes a symbolic expression of 
human mortality and of possibilities for mankind to attain a condition 
more like that of the gods, both on earth and beyond. It is also a codified 
expression of religious devotion to the extent that the realization of the 
hope expressed depends on the action of the divinity. By inscribing 
the heroic or divine action in the present, by inscribing the logic of 
narrative action into the expression addressed to all mortals “happy is 
he who . . . ,” the role of the aition (‘cause’) is not limited to simply 
explicating the “rite” by the “myth” — it is not uniquely a question of 
origin. The logical succession of events that leads from the abduction 
of Persephone to the institution of the cult of the Mysteries of Eleusis 
is only achieved, in effect, in the performance of ritual practices taught 
and instituted by the divinity. 

This progression of narrative logic that leads to practice itself is 
confirmed by the concluding verses of the Homeric Hymn. After the first 
makarismos, the poem briefly returns to the narrative tense to describe 
Demeter’s ascension from Eleusis to Olympus, where she henceforth 
remains, in the present, at her daughter’s side. Yet another, more general, 
makarismos - “Exceedingly happy is he whom the august goddesses love 
among men living on earth” — confirms the relationship between the 
actions of mother and daughter and the earthly happiness of men; this 
relationship is affirmed in the present but made possible through ritual 
acts instituted in the past. “Straightaway,” the bard concludes, “they 
send to this [blessed] man in his vast dwelling, Ploutos (‘Wealth’) who, 
installed by the hearth, bestows prosperity on mortal men .” 12 Through 
this second ritualized utterance of the makarismos, the tense of the narra- 
tion again leads to the present of religious practice; it has an immediate 
effect on the life of the mortal who worships the two goddesses. 

But there is more. In effect, this epic composition, telling the story 
of a young girl’s abduction and the sorrow of a mother, conforms to 


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a tripartite structure common to the majority of the Homeric Hymns: 
(i) a brief formula of evocatio to the divinity concerned; (ii) a narrative, 
more or less developed, of the god’s biography and description of one or 
another of his functions, called the epica pars; and (iii) a rapid conclusion 
where a request (preces ) is addressed directly to the divinity concerned. 
The long Homeric Hymn to Demeter concludes thus by a direct address 
to the two goddesses of Eleusis. The performer of the hymn implores 
the two goddesses - in a final discursive movement that brings together 
the tripartite structure of every sung hymn with that of a prayer — that 
he too be included in the prosperity that they are capable of bestowing. 
To support his request, the performer verbally engages in the ritual of 
reciprocity — do ut des (‘I give in order that you might give’) — that in 
classical Greece as well as in many other cultures marks each offering to 
a hero or a god: in exchange for the favor that he asks of the god, the 
bard or rhapsode offers his own song ( aoide , verse 494). We not only 
perceive that the “now” of the beneficent action of the two goddesses 
corresponds in fact to the hie et nunc (‘here and now’) of the enunciation 
of the poem, but also we equally understand that the singing of the 
hymnic poem itself, its psalmodic recital, corresponds to a cult act. 
In its supposed efficacy, this cult act is not unlike the ritual acts that 
Demeter instituted at Eleusis. 13 

Attested in several of the poetic texts probably related to the Mys- 
teries of Eleusis, the formula of makarismos promising the initiated a 
happier destiny in the underworld at Persephone’s side undoubtedly 
formed part of the legomena ritually pronounced during worship under 
the vow of secrecy, along with the acts performed (the dromena ) and 
the objects displayed (the deiknumena). Its dual presence in the Homeric 
Hymn thus allows for the insertion of the poem itself, as a sung perfor- 
mance, into the service of the cult. Given the absence of any reference 
to Athens in this Homeric Hymn, it is most probable that it was composed 
and performed before the integration of Eleusis and its sanctuary into 
the territory controlled by the great city. 14 

At this point, it is essential to remember that, using a designation 
already employed by Thucydides, the Homeric Hymns are defined as 
“proems.” As shown by the transition formula that concludes certain 
of these hymnic compositions, sung by bards or rhapsodes, the Homeric 
Hymn as a proem assumes the double function of introducing a particular 
epic song in a bardic or rhapsodic competition and of consecrating this 
song for the cult of a specific deity. The hymnic proem thus renders 
Homeric recitation as a whole an offering to a deity, and, consequently, 
a ritual act in the framework of competitions of Homeric recitation that 


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marked the great festivals of numerous cities or classical cult sites. Such 
is the case of the Panathenaic festival or, as we shall see, of the Delia at 
Delos. 15 

The aetiological relationship between the divine story and the cult 
practices instituted by Demeter is thus established by essentially poetic 
and discursive means. More than the allusion to the components of the 
rites ofEleusis that the use of torches to seek Persephone, the fasting of 
Demeter, the double epiphany of the goddess, or the attempt to immor- 
talize Demophon all represent, it is above all the recitation of the poem 
itself as a cult act that confers upon this relationship its pragmatic, even 
performative, function. Even more than the example of Euripides’ Hip- 
polytus, where it also falls to the goddess herself to institute cult practices 
for the hero, the words sung in the Hymn to Demeter guarantee the reli- 
gious significance of the “myth” through ritual observance. Whether 
the divine or heroic story is told in dactylic hexameter or dramatized 
in iambic trimeter, the form it takes is invariably poetic. 

Dithyramb and the Legend of Theseus 
to Legitimize Athenian “Imperialism”: 

The Delia at Delos 

The story, sung in Bacchylides’ Dithyramb 17 in the years following the 
end of the Persian Wars and painted in the same period by Micon in the 
new sanctuary devoted to the national hero of Athens, is well known. 
Before addressing the context of the enunciation of this cult song, we 
will first consider the poetic account that Bacchylides of Ceos gives of 
an episode inserted into the saga of Theseus. Based on the figure of 
the young Athenian citizen, Theseus came to replace Heracles as the 
hero who brings civilization and a founding personality for Athens; he 
would go on to be, six centuries later, the subject of one of Plutarch’s 
Lives, in the company of Solon, Themistocles, and Pericles. 

In the first part of the story, which divides the poem into two 
aspects, Minos takes the lead. Sailing through the Cretan Sea, that king 
of Cnossus is escorting seven young men and seven young women 
intended as tribute for his monstrous son the Minotaur. While the 
young Athenians are accompanied by the hero Theseus, himself pro- 
tected by Athena, it is Aphrodite who inspires in the Cretan general 
an unseemly act committed against one of the beautiful young Athe- 
nian women, whose beauty has seduced him. Invoking the authority of 
his divine father Poseidon, Theseus condemns the hubris of the Cretan 


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hero, who, in turn, claims the authority of his own divine father, Zeus, 
to challenge his accuser to a duel. Minos is able to summon a thunder- 
bolt of Zeus and dares Theseus to bring back from the watery depths, 
home of his father Poseidon, the ring that Minos threw there. Moera 
(Fate) intervenes to create a twist in the unfolding of the plot. Theseus, 
henceforth the narrative subject, is led by dolphins into the underwater 
dwelling of his father, where he is welcomed by the dances and choral 
songs of the daughters of Nereus. Then, he receives from his father’s 
wife, Amphitrite, a purple cloak and the crown that she had been given 
for her nuptials. In the light that emanates from these erotic and mat- 
rimonial gifts of the young woman, Theseus miraculously springs up 
onto the deck of the boat carrying the young men and women from 
Athens to Crete. With the splendor of a god in his epiphany, he reap- 
pears like a betrothed woman, displaying traits that, at the very least, are 
ambiguous in terms of “gender.” The hero’s return from the depths of 
the Cretan Sea is celebrated by the paean performed by the seven young 
Athenian men, while the seven young women accompany the victory 
song with the traditional ritual cry. Paianixan and ololuxan : the terms 
used by Bacchylides to describe this song embedded in the narrative 
refer us to the performance of a cult paean. 

It is only by the means of the narrative performance of this paean 
that we come to the end of the story and pass, quite briefly, to the time 
and place of the enunciation of the dithyramb itself, with an implicit 
reference to the hie et mine of its ritual and historical execution (verses 

He springs from the depths of the sea without being wet, 

To the astonishment of all; 

On his limbs shone the gifts of the gods. 

The young girls in luminous garments 

Shouted ritual cries with a new joy. 

The sea echoed them. 

Next to them, the young men sang the paean 

In a lusty voice. 

God of Delos, after having delighted in your heart 

At the choral dances of the Ceans, 

Bestow upon the worthy the good fortune sent by the gods. 

The god of Delos is, of course, Apollo, worshipped each year at 
the place of his birth and in his island sanctuary during the great festival 
of the DeHa. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo sings of athletic and musical 
contests that Greek men from Ionia, accompanied by their wives and 


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children, organized. The climax of the festival was marked by the choral 
performance of the young Deliads (Delian maidens), who sang, under 
the aegis of a Homeric bard, the glories of Apollo and Artemis and 
of heroes and heroines. When recounting the history of the sanctuary, 
Thucydides tells of the progressive taking of control of the pan-Ionian 
festival by the Athenians, who would annually send an important choral 
delegation. Assuming each year the form of a thedna (an official mission) , 
this naval procession was the source, as Phaedo describes in the epony- 
mous Platonic dialogue, of the delay in the execution of Socrates after 
his trial. It was led by that very boat on which Theseus was said to have 
sailed with the seven young men and seven young women of Athens 
— who were in the end saved from the Labyrinth of Crete. Displaying 
the finest aetiological logic, Phaedo attributes this naval procession to 
a sacred vow that the Athenians made to Apollo, promising to send an 
annual and ritual fleet of ships to Delos in exchange for protection of the 
Athenian youths. It is thus through this lead ship, appropriately crowned 
by the priest of Apollo, that the people of Athens perpetuate and cele- 
brate, “regularly and still now” (aet kai nun eti ) in ritual reiteration, the 
memory of one of the founding moments of Athenian citizenship . 16 

According to such logic, the episode in which Theseus plunges 
into the Cretan Sea and his subsequent reemergence for the benefit of 
the seven young men and seven young women he accompanies appear 
to be the aition of the song that itself contains the account of the event. 
Added to the identification of the ship bearing the legendary tribute of 
Athenian youths to Crete with the ship that conveys the cult proces- 
sion to Delos and back, there are significant musical echoes. The ritual 
performance of Bacchylides’ dithyramb, composed for a choral group 
and intended as an offering to Apollo at Delos, is foreshadowed in the 
poetic narrative by the Nereids’ choral dances in Amphitrite’s underwa- 
ter home, which will become the Aegean Sea, as well as by the paean 
performed on the deck of the ship by the young men and women. It is 
an aetiological paradox that a dithyramb penned by Bacchylides of Ceos 
intended for choral groups is announced by the narrative performance 
of a paean: probably prevalent here are the rules of genre, which impose 
the dithyrambic form upon a story with substantial narrative sophisti- 
cation, frequently detached from the context of the cult of Dionysus 
and, moreover, attested at Delos itself . 17 

However, the aetiological relationship between a narrative episode 
in the “mythical” biography of Theseus and the great cult gathering at 
Delos with its musical competitions in honor of Delian Apollo is not 
realized uniquely on the religious level. In effect, in the opening of 


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his history of the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians, 
Thucydides presents Minos, the king of Cnossus, as the ancestor of the 
thalassocracy — in other words, as the hero who first liberated the Cre- 
tan Sea from barbarian pirates and maintained political and economic 
control over its waters. He chased away the Carians and Phoenicians 
from the Cyclades and established, by placing his sons there, a colonial 
power from which he drew considerable revenue. Minos thus becomes, 
as a civilizing hero, the founding hero of the politics of expansion that 
Athens undertook at the end of the Persian Wars - played out on a sea 
that from the time of Theseus’ return from the Labyrinth of Crete and 
by reason of the suicide of his father, Aegeus, in the wake of the mis- 
understanding over the black sail, bore the name of the king of Athens. 
Under the pen of Thucydides, the heroic legend thus becomes history, 
and the very name of the Aegean Sea carries within it the aetiolog- 
ical relationship between the colonial and economic power of Minos 
over the islands of which the center is Delos and the enthroning of 
Theseus in Athens as a democratic king following his father’s suicide. 
Foreshadowed in an early era by Minos’ civilizing activities in the for- 
mer Cretan Sea, the taking of political and economic control by Athens 
in the Aegean Sea would be consecrated by the creation of the Delian 
League just after the Persian Wars, with Delian Apollo’s sanctuary serv- 
ing as its cultic and administrative center, precisely in the period when 
Bacchylides composed his Dithyramb 17. lS 

Through poetic creation and musical performance, the heroic 
story of Theseus’ dive into the depths of the Cretan Sea to join his 
father Poseidon, tutelary god of Athens, lends legitimacy to both the 
Athenian choral dances during the cult celebration of Apollo at Delos 
and the expansionist politics of the city in the Aegean basin. In the ritual 
performance of Dithyramb 17 of the poet of Ceos, it is a patriotic and 
colonial policy that symbolically mimes the young Athenian men and 
women singing the heroic exploit of Theseus and offering their song 
to Delian Apollo. 

Epinicia and the Abduction of the 
Nymph Cyrene: The Colonial 
Celebration of the Spartan Carneia 
at Cyrene 

The Greeks of the classical period understood in terms of colonial and 
civilizing activity not only the progressive settling of the territory of 


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Hellas itself with civic communities but also their efforts at external 
domination around the rim of the Mediterranean basin. Thus, in the 
mimetic hymn that he dedicated to Apollo, the Alexandrian poet Cal- 
limachus recounts how the seat of the Carneian god was consecutively 
moved from the city of Sparta to the island of Thera, and then from San- 
torini to Cyrene on the coast of Libya, first by Theras, a descendant of 
Oedipus and heroic founder of Thera, and then by Battus, the historical 
founder of Cyrene. In the great Alexandrian tradition that Callimachus 
himself inaugurated, that strange form of mythography cloaked in epic 
diction takes on an aetiological function. This summary foundation-tale 
of Cyrene and its antecedents serves in effect to explain the construction 
of the temple and the annual offering of a sacrifice in honor of Apollo 
Carneius in this Greek city of Libya . 19 Fed by a constantly tended flame, 
these sacrificial offerings were accompanied during the celebration of 
the Carneia by a choral dance of armed men, in keeping with a tradition 
that stretches back to the institution of the Cyrenean cult of Apollo. A 
new aetiological cord in Callimachus’ hymnic account traces its origin 
to the dance that the Dorian migrants performed at the springs of Cyre: 
the god himself had led the Greek colonists there, and he rejoiced, in the 
company of a young nymph, at the sight of their progress; the nymph, 
Cyrene, had given her name to the place, having been abducted by the 
god from her native Thessaly. This choral dance and the memory of 
the abduction of a young huntress-heroine explain, again in an aetio- 
logical mode, both the benefactions that Apollo henceforth constantly 
accorded to the city of Cyrene and, via the reciprocal relationship of 
do ut des, the reverence accorded him by the descendants of the heroic 
founder Battus . 20 In its double invocation of the Carneian god, one 
reminiscent of the form of cult hymns, this hymnic narrative is aeti- 
ological on a third level, for it is accompanied by another enigmatic 
aetiology that refers the god of the Carneia to the poet and narrator 
and, in so doing, to the hie et nunc of the singing performance. The 
various enunciative processes of this erudite hymnic poem designate 
the hie et nunc as mimetic, without reference to a specific instance of an 
actual performance. 

Be that as it may, the pattern that structures the hymnic narrative 
of the founding of the sanctuary of Apollo at the springs of Cyre in 
Libya and the itinerant locales of the Spartan festival of the Carneia 
brings to mind the close of the narrative passages of the Homeric Hymn 
to Demeter. In the case of the latter, it is the goddess herself who, as we 
have seen, institutes the cult honors that will be regularly consecrated 
to her; as for the former, the god participates, on the narrative and 


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enunciative levels, in the founding of rites whose performance delights 
him, at first in the time of the Dorian heroes, and then in the seasonal 
cycle leading up to the moment of the poem’s enunciation where Apollo 
is invoked directly. However, if the location of the institution of the cult 
coincides in principle with the place where the poem is recited, the sheer 
number of foundation acts that Callimachus rehearses in the aetiological 
narration of his mimetic hymn renders such an identification impossible: 
from Thessaly to Delphi, on a route that leads through Delos and Cyrene 
before the story reaches its end in a place that can only, according to a 
poetic itinerary set under the aegis of the god of music, correspond to 
a space of a purely poetic enunciation . 21 

It was quite a different matter two centuries earlier, when Pindar 
chose to recount the “historical” version of the founding of Cyrene 
on the occasion of a ritual celebration of the chariot victory at the 
Pythian Games of the king of Cyrene, Arcesilas IV. Independent of 
the divine version of the story in the ninth Pythian Ode, which traces the 
foundation of the Greek city in Libya to the abduction of the eponymous 
nymph Cyrene by the young Apollo, and independent also of the heroic 
version in the fourth Pythian Ode, which associates the founding of 
Cyrene by the people of Thera with the legend of the Argonauts, the 
story that Pindar tells in the fifth Pythian Ode underscores the special 
relationship between Apollo, whose oracular voice at Delphi ordained 
the foundation of a colony, and the heroic founder Battus, who, with his 
prodigious voice, was able to scare away the lions that prowled around 
the savage land that was to be colonized and civilized. The double 
invoking of the oracular voice that names the land to be colonized and 
the civilizing voice that removes savagery leads the narrator to sing of the 
triple powers of Apollo as a god ofhealing, god of musical inspiration and 
god of prophecy who guides the foundation of Hellenic cities. Then, in 
a move that blends genealogical narrative and enunciative intervention, 
the heroic antecedents of the foundation of Cyrene by Battus of Thera 
are praised: 

It is my role to sing an admirable glory, 

Come from Sparta. 

Natives of this city, the heroic Aegids, my forefathers, 

Came to Thera, not without the aid of the gods; 

Destiny guided them. 

Having inherited from there the tradition of the communal 

Accompanied by numerous sacrifices, 


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We celebrate during the feasts in your honor, Apollo Carneius, 
The resplendent city of Cyrene. 

The foreign warriors occupy it, Trojans, sons of Antenor; 

They arrived there with Helen, 

After they had seen their homeland 
Razed by the fire of Ares . 22 

From Sparta through Thera to Cyrene, the itinerary that Pindar’s 
poetic tale describes is identical to the one offered in the mythographical 
summary of Callimachus’ poem, save the subtle nuance that the first- 
person narrator introduces, by alluding to the descendants of Aegeus as 
“my fathers,” to include his own city of origin, Thebes. It is indeed this 
itinerary from Sparta that seems to have been customarily followed in 
celebrating Apollo Carneius at his festival of the same name. In the same 
way, in Callimachus’ poem, the intervention of the “I” of the narrator 
in the heroic tale allows the establishment of a relationship between this 
legendary past and the history and origins of his own family. On the 
other hand, the tense shift from the past to the present that the direct 
address to Apollo Carneius provokes in Callimachus’ poem corresponds 
to a shift from “I” to “we” in Pindar’s epinicion. It is no longer the “I” 
of the poet who, like the Aegids, hails from Thebes, but the collective 
“we” who honor the city of Cyrene with a ritual banquet devoted to 
the god of the Carneia. Moreover, in a manipulation of narrative time 
that Pindar masters so artfully, the flight of the Antenorids from the 
devastated city of Troy to Cyrene is invoked at this juncture and, in yet 
another shift from the heroic past tense to the ritual present, the Trojan 
heroes are summoned to receive the sacrificial offerings presented at the 
Carneia by the heroic founder’s companions and their descendants . 23 

When combined with the strong presence of the first-person utter- 
ances of the “I” of the poet and the choral “we,” these successive tem- 
poral shifts from a heroic time to the present of the religious cere- 
mony honoring Apollo Carneius indicate that the very performance 
of the fifth Pythian Ode coincides with the celebration of the Carneia 
in Cyrene — and this is all the more likely in that the beginning of 
the poem designates in a deictic and self-referential manner the choral 
procession that, in the guise of a komos (a group of merrymakers) , sings 
of the victory of Arcesilas IV in the present. The choral performance 
entertains Apollo in a garden of Aphrodite; this place could correspond 
to a cult site in the great sanctuary of the tutelary god of Cyrene, but 
could equally be a metaphorical allusion to the region of the Greek 
colony of Libya captured in the splendor of its legendary fertility . 24 


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Thus, on the one hand, the poetic allusion to the legend of the 
founding of Cyrene by Battus, two lengthy versions of which Herodotus 
inserted into his Histories, is twice linked by Pindar with the age of the 
heroes: first, by the reference to the Aegids who came from Thebes, 
passing through Sparta and Thera, whose founder was Theras, the 
grandfather of Aegeus; then, by rehearsing the founding of Cyrene itself 
by heroes descended from Antenor, fleeing the destruction of Troy . 25 
On the other hand, through a subtle enunciative technique that Pindar 
frequently employs in his choral poems, the poet lends his authorial 
voice to a choral group, which then performs the poem in dance and 
song: by this act of “choral delegation,” the poet singing the chariot 
victory of the king of Cyrene at the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo 
becomes the group of choral singers who perform his song in Cyrene 
during the Carneia celebrating the same god 26 - the god who, with 
his oracular voice, ordered Battus to found a colonial city in Libya is 
also the “horned” god (the leading ram of the flock) who leads colonial 
expeditions and who controls the acts of foundation. In an aetiological 
relationship of an essentially ritual nature, the time of the heroic founders 
of the Aegid family and the time of the Trojan war and of those other 
founders who would become the Antenorids augment the profound 
import of the time of the arrival ofBattos, the founder of Cyrene; these 
three temporal threads of the “myth” converge in the celebration of the 
Carneia and of the king of the colonial city of Cyrene honored in the 
fifth Pythian Ode. 

The poetic relationship established between the different temporal 
moments of foundation and the ritual song of the poem has the effect 
of reinforcing the heroizing of Battus himself; his actions in founding 
the city fill up the verses that follow and that lead to the conclusion 
of the epinician song. Exactly at the end of a wide road, used for cult 
processions, that the founder had paved all the way to the agora lay the 
tomb ofBattus, the heroic founder, whose lineage Pindar traces down to 
Arcesilas IV in a final return to the present moment of the enunciation 
of the poem, under the protection of sovereign Zeus. Thus temporal 
and spatial continuity is established in an aetiological manner between 
the “mythic” ancestors of the founders, the founder who is himself 
heroicized, and the present royal power celebrated on the occasion of a 
Pythic victory performatively recounted in the fully Apollonian frame 
of the Carneia. The ritual celebration of a god who is a founder of cities 
and himself a bearer of civilization through the introduction of nymphs 
that incarnate the passage from savagery to Hellenic culture confirms, 


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between his continental oracular center and the peripheral colonies, the 
heroization of the founders, between legend and history. 

Cult Song and the Installation of 
Dionysus at Delphi: The Apollonian 
Festival of the Theoxenia 

In 340-339 BCE, a citizen of Locrian Scarphea - one Philodamus - 
dedicated in Delphi, near the sanctuary of Delphic Apollo, then under- 
going renovation, the text of a paean. 27 This dedication on a marble 
stele commemorated various favors accorded Philodamus and his fam- 
ily by the clergy or the Amphictyons of Delphi; among such privileges 
were proxema (an agreement of reciprocal friendship and hospitality) and 
promanteia (the right to consult an oracle) . 

Set out in twelve strophes in Aeolian melic rhythm, this anony- 
mous cult song has the tripartite structure typical of cult hymns that 
one also finds, with some variation, in those proems to epic recitations 
that are the Homeric Hymns (as discussed above): invocation - narrative - 
prayer. Explicitly designated as a paean in the dedicatory inscription, the 
poem begins in an overtly ritual fashion with an invocation to Diony- 
sus. As tradition requires, the presence of the god is invoked with a 
sequence of asyndetic epicleses: “Lord, Dithyrambus, Bacchus, Euius, 
Bull with ivy tresses, Bromius.” From the first strophe, also according to 
the tradition of cult song, a “hymnic” relative pronoun, whose gram- 
matical antecedent is the invoked god, introduces a lengthy narrative 
passage, no longer in the present tense, which would correspond to that 
of the enunciation, but in the aorist (past) tense. This narrative, which 
is not heroic but divine, retraces the path of Dionysus from the place 
of his birth as far as Pieria near Olympus: Bacchic Thebes, where the 
birth of a beautiful boy to Zeus and Thyone (Semele) is celebrated by 
choral dances among immortals and by revelry among mortals; then 
Orchomenus and Euboea, caught up in Bacchic delirium like the city 
of Cadmus; Delphi, sacred and blessed land that dances for Dionysus, 
making the crevices of Parnassus alive with young Delphian women; 
Eleusis, where the young god arrives with a torch in hand, under the 
name of Iacchus, breathing divine possession into the celebration of 
the mysteries by locals and by initiates from across Greece; finally, after 
one or two stops that lacunae in the text prevent us from identifying, 
Pieria and Olympus, where Dionysus is sung by the Muses and crowned 

27 5 

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with ivy — their circling choral dances are led by Apollo, who is himself 
khoregos. 2S 

It turns out that the first section of the narrative portion of the 
paean, denoted as “of Philodamus,” does not correspond exactly and 
formally to a “myth.” In effect, the young Dionysus, the principal pro- 
tagonist of the narrative action in his trek of spreading Bacchic possession 
from Thebes to Olympus, remains continually connected, through the 
use of the second person, to the invocatory element at the beginning of 
the poem. This blending of the level of story or narrative (, histoire / recit ) 
and that of discourse ( discours ) is reinforced in the second section of the 
narrative part, constituting the predominant portion of the poem (from 
the second half of strophe I to the end of strophe XI). 29 Despite the 
large lacuna that robs us of the text of strophes VI, VII, and VIII, we 
can see that it is Apollo, presented as khoregos of the Muses celebrating 
Dionysus at the end of stanza V, who is henceforth the subject of the 
narrative action - in the third person, of course, but in the present tense! 
After a probable allusion to the oracle he controls at Delphi, the god 
becomes the protagonist of a series of acts of inauguration. In stanza IX: 

The god commands the Amphictyons 
To perform the rite quickly 
So that he who strikes from far 
Holds back his wrath. 

Euoi o io Bacchus 6 ie Paean 

He orders them to display this hymn here, 

At the time of the annual xenia. 

For his brother, the sacred scion of the gods, 

And organize a shining sacrifice 
Punctuated by communal supplications 
To all of Hellas, the most fortunate. 

Ie Paean, come as a savior, 

Protect, good guardian, this city here, 

By granting happiness and prosperity. 

In a turn analogous to the one that closes the narrative in the 
Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it falls to the god to inaugurate the ritual 
honors that are bestowed upon him. But the act of institution pertains 
not to the rites of the Theoxenia as a whole, which are well attested at 
Delphi, but to a sacrifice with Panhellenic import and to the perfor- 
mance of the present song, which, while praising the god of the oracle, 
is destined for Dionysus. Owing to the intervention of the god in the 


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story, the narrative component of the poetic composition leads to the 
performance of the hymn itself that sings the life of Dionysus and the 
benefactions of Apollo. 

The third section of the paean, particularly well developed, begins 
with a direct address to those fortunate mortal men who are in the 
process of reconstructing and adorning the temple of Apollo. Instead 
of the prayer expected at the end of the poem, a makarismos appears; it 
proclaims the joy of those men who have the privilege of contributing 
to the restoration of the splendor of the sanctuary that hosts - the 
following strophe adds — the quadrennial Pythian Games. Apollo had 
already brought in Dionysus by instituting for him a sacrifice and cyclical 
chorus competitions (in other words, dithyrambs) and by erecting in 
a grotto set aside for the god a statue of Bacchus on a sun-chariot 
pulled by golden lions. To the introduction of Dionysus into the present 
celebration of the Theoxenia corresponds his cultic association, in the 
past, with the festival of the Pythia - always by the will of the god who 
is lord of Delphi. Henceforth, for the prayer to a god who had already 
several times sought ritual inauguration on behalf of his half-brother 
Dionysus can be substituted a prayer addressed to a plural “you” that 
surely designates not only the members of the chorus singing the paean, 
but also the Amphictyons who organized the performance: a petition to 
welcome and invoke Dionysus in ivy-crowned choruses and by choral 
dances evoking the musical performance of this strange paean shared by 
Apollo and Dionysus, for the prosperity of all Greece. 

These different relationships established between acts of the gods 
in the past and religious actions performed by humans in the present 
make of the very performance of the paean of Philodamus a particular 
ritual integrated into the Theoxenia at Delphi, a festival that henceforth 
welcomes Dionysus. 30 The pronounced ritual character of the hymn 
that glorifies Dionysus and Apollo is accentuated by the repetition at 
the end of each strophe of a long refrain, but also by the insertion in each 
strophe of an intermediate refrain. The latter, which is an epiphthegma 
punctuated by two minor Ionic meters, speaks to the cult complemen- 
tarity between the two gods: Dionysus and Apollo are both invoked 
by a ritual cry inscribed in cult tradition and designed to call forth 
the presence of either the god Bacchus or the god Paean. The divine 
epiphany will be conjoined, underscored by the phonic echo of the 
double invocation: Euoi 6 io Bacchos, 6 ie Paean. 31 

The more developed ephumnion that closes each strophe, in a com- 
bination of minor Ionic meters and Aeolic metric rhythm, is introduced 
by a single ritual call to Paean. It takes the place of a properly spoken 


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prayer, since it corresponds to a request addressed directly to this savior 
deity: that he afford protection and prosperity to a city - a city that, 
by the deixis implicit in the demonstrative pronoun hode, can only be 
Delphi, the place of the performance of the song. It is undoubtedly 
no accident that the unfortunately damaged lines of the poem’s final 
strophe close with the mention of a lord of health. This designation 
leads, in a final reiteration of the refrain, to the last ritual call addressed 
to Paean and, consequently, to a renewed prayer for prosperity for Del- 
phi. It is thus Apollo who is designated in this final phrase, the actor of 
the second section of the narrative component of the poem, and not 
a Dionysus metamorphosed into a paean god, as has been too often 
affirmed. The paean repeats in order to reestablish the cult collabora- 
tion of Apollo Paean with Dionysus Bacchus, under the control of the 
former, in a relationship of asymmetric complementarity that inverts 
the terms of that one imagined by Nietzsche in his famous essay on the 
origins of tragedy and of the Dionysian arts . 32 

In a hymnic cult song, such as the paean of Philodamus, the aeti- 
ological relationship established between the acts of gods in the past and 
the present ritual circumstances is realized through the performance of 
the poem itself. This performative act, both musical and religious, is not 
merely reflected in choral executions that traverse the entirety of the 
composition — the choral dances of the immortals to welcome Dionysus 
at his birth; the territory of Cadmus roused by Bacchic exuberance and 
the blessed land of Delphi animated by choral dance; the choir of Muses, 
under Apollo’s direction, singing Dionysus at his arrival in Pieria and on 
Olympus; the performance of the paean at the Theoxenia; the choral 
competition at the Pythian Games, the actual welcoming of Dionysus 
by ivy-crowned choral groups. The song must encourage the recon- 
struction of Apollo’s oracular temple by the people of Delphi and the 
Amphictyons, with the aid of all the Greeks, and probably under the 
control of Athens. Despite substantial lacunae, the penultimate strophe 
seems to contain an allusion to a golden statue of Dionysus surrounded 
by goddesses; according to evidence from Pausanias, who identifies these 
dancers with the Thyiades (devotees of Bacchus), this statue formed part 
of the group of sculptures that adorned the western pediment of the 
sixth Delphic temple of Apollo . 33 The aetiological relationship between 
divine actions and the introduction of Dionysus into the Theoxenia by 
the very singing of the paean is thus enriched by a referential relationship 
with this other type of religious practice and offering, the execution and 
consecration of grand-scale iconographic projects in classical Greece. If 


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only by the means of its financing, this religious practice resorting to 
the plastic arts takes on — even as with the consecration of the paean — 
sung first, then monumentalized — an eminently political dimension. 

In Conclusion, the Tragedy and 
Genealogy of Ion: Athenian Politics at 
the Great Dionysia 

From the point of view of the aetiological relationship, in its several 
manifestations, that establishes a link between a divine or heroic past and 
a ritual or religious practice, the tragedies of Euripides are of particular 
interest, insofar as the dramatic unfolding of narrative intrigue sets before 
the audience acts of cult practice. Like Hippolytus, invoked above in the 
guise of a prelude, the Euripidean tragedy dramatizing the story of Ion, 
son of the Athenian queen Creusa and of Apollo, the god of Delphi, 
concludes with an aetiological explication of the events dramatized on 
the stage. As with Artemis at the end of Hippolytus, it falls to Athena to 
confer upon the young man, at last recognized by his divine father and 
mortal mother, the function of young heroic founder. Leaving behind 
his lowly role as a servant in the sanctuary of the oracle of Apollo 
at Delphi, he will gain that form of immortalization that will make 
him worthy of the glory of being successor to his maternal grandfather 
Erechtheus on the throne of Athens. 

For the establishment of a cult recalling the memory of a young- 
man-become-hero, there is substituted, for young Ion, an inscription, 
bearing the names of his descendants, of the organization of the inhab- 
itants of Athens into four tribes: the Geleontes (farmers), the Aegicores 
(shepherds), the Llopletes (soldiers), and the Argades (craftsmen) - that 
Plutarch describes in the Life of Solon, substituting for the names of the 
four sons of Ion etymologies related to the social functions of these four 
Athenian tribes, undoubtedly Ionian in origin. 34 In a foreshadowing 
of Athenian domination of the Aegean, also aetiologically evoked in 
Bacchylides’ Dithyramb 17, their descendants would be called to inhabit 
the Cyclades and the two shores of the sea separating Asia from Europe; 
corresponding to the bipartition of the civilized world as Herodotus 
conceives it in his investigation of the Persian Wars, the territorial rep- 
resentation evoked by Athena on the stage at the Great Dionysia of the 
penultimate decade of the fifth century is profoundly marked by the 
ideology of Athenian foreign policy after the victory over Xerxes — as 


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far as the maternal lineage of Ion is concerned, the son of Creusa, herself 
the daughter of the king of Athens, Erechtheus. 

As for Ion’s stepfather Xuthus, this “foreign” son of Aeolus, 
Achaean by birth, he will become, by Creusa, the father of Dorus, 
the heroic founder of the Dorian region, and of Achaeus, the epony- 
mous hero of the Achaeans: a remodeling of the transmitted tradition 
that accorded a prominent role to Aeolians and Dorians, this genealog- 
ical lineage serves, at the time of the Peloponnesian War, to subordinate 
the Peloponnesians to the Ionians; as the son of a god, Ion holds a priv- 
ileged status over Dorus and Achaeus . 35 Thus, at the end of the tragedy, 
by means of an eponymic and etymologizing aetiology, the installing of 
Ion, son of Apollo and Creusa, successor of Erechtheus, on the throne 
of the city under Athena’s protection takes the place of the usual worship 
rendered to the hero: Euripides’ drama is there to perpetuate ritually, 
together with the Athenian audience gathered in the theater and sanc- 
tuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus for the tragic competition, the memory 
of the young heroized king. 

Now, at the beginning of the tragedy, the god Hermes, who 
pronounces the pdrodos (‘entrance song’), had already made recourse 
to the aetiological technique - at first for setting out the genealogy 
of the future king of Athens: Erichthonius, the autochthonous ances- 
tor of the king Erechtheus (father of Creusa), the babe born from the 
soil of Attica, left in a basket and entrusted by his virginal “mother” 
Athena to the care of the virgin daughters of Aglaurus and two ser- 
pents - hence the custom of Erechtheus’ descendants wearing those 
golden serpents that Creusa had herself worn as a young girl and placed 
in the basket with her newborn son whom she abandoned deep in 
a grotto of the Acropolis. As renewed by Euripides, the legend thus 
makes of Ion a second Erichthonius: if Ion does not have the same 
autochthonous birth as the child who grew from the sperm of Hep- 
haestus that fell to the ground as he pursued the fleeing Athena, he 
nonetheless is also born of a virgin; he is placed in a basket guarded 
by the serpents of the Erechtheids, in the very grotto where the little 
Erichthonius was placed in the care of the three daughters of Aglaurus 
and Cecrops, the first king born from the soil of Attica . 36 Raised by his 
father Apollo and finally recognized by his mother, Ion (‘he who goes’) 
is proclaimed by Hermes to be the future hero-colonizer of the “land of 
Asia,” by the will of Apollo, god of civilization and of the founding of 
cities: the aetiological relationship with the Hellenization of the Ionian 
coast of the Aegean Sea, which itself anticipates the Athenian policy of 
expansion during the classical period, is assured anew by etymologizing 


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word-play . 37 Thus, at the end of the tragedy, Athena, the patron goddess 
of Athens, can affirm in her concluding epiphany: 

The descendants (of the four sons of Ion), when the time will 

Marked by destiny, 

Will occupy the island cities of the Cyclades, 

And the coasts of the sea, giving strength to my land. 

Then they will inhabit the plains of the two facing continents, 

Europe and Asia, and be called Ionians after the name of this 
very Ion, 

And will enjoy glory without end . 38 

By manipulating Ion’s genealogy in order to associate the young 
hero with the Athenian autochthon and make him the pivot of a hier- 
archized ethnic identity, Euripides keeps pace with his historiographic 
colleagues Acusilaus of Argos or, above all, Pherecydes of Athens. This 
course of an aetiological genealogy of an ethnic and political order is all 
the more surprising because Ion seems not to have been the object of 
an important hero cult in Athens . 39 All unfolds as if it were, in the end, 
the tragedy itself, in its ritual performance at the Great Dionysia in the 
city, that takes the place of a heroizing celebration for the son of the god 
of Delphi. The tragedy makes a statement by inserting the young hero, 
via both maternal bloodline and the law of the epikleros (‘heiress’), into 
the lineage of the legendary kings and founders of Athens — an insertion 
that seems to be tied to a particular political situation and that appears 
not to have been retained by the official historiography of the city, if, for 
example, the chronicle of the Marmor Pariurn is to be believed. Creusa 
is a parthenos (‘virgin’) like Athena — this is certain — and above all Ion 
is a young man like Apollo: Athena herself, at the end of the tragedy, 
confirms the veneration that the son-turned-king of Athens holds for 
his divine father in respect of the divine order. 

Considered as religious practices, the stories that we identify and 
place under the rubric of “myth” thus reveal themselves to exist only 
in particular poetic forms. It is the rules of genre that, divided between 
institutional ritualities and regularities of discursive order, contrive to 
make “myths” socially and ideologically active. Supported by poetic 
genre, this or that episode of the divine and heroic past of the Greek 
communities is inserted in both a specific cult institution and in a form 
of ritual poetry, most often choral. These poetic forms make from narra- 
tives, appearing to us as mythic, an active history, inscribed in a collective 


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memory realized through ritual. 40 Far from forming a system of thought, 
far from being inscribed in some structure of the human unconscious, 
far from constituting a particular language, the ensemble of the myths of 
the Hellenic tradition is characterized by a certain plasticity that allows 
the poetic creation of versions constantly readapted for cult and for 
religious and ideological paradigms offered by a polytheism that varies 
within the multifarious civic space and time of the cities of Greece. 
It corresponds to a polymorphous cultural memory, at the same time 
ritually creative and reactive, and to a religious memory that, given the 
ritual dimension of the poetic forms that the legend assumes, is fulfilled 
in a performative manner by the acts inscribed in the cult calendars of 
the cities and of the great cult centers of Greece - here, Athens and 
Sparta, Delos and Delphi, but Troezen or Cyrene as well. 

Further Reading 

On Greek mythology, there are two good recent introductions: R. 
Buxton, Imaginary Greece. The Contexts of Mythology, Cambridge 1994 
and F. Graf, Greek Mythology. An Introduction, Baltimore and London 
1993; see also S. Said, Approches de la mythologie grecque, Paris 1993, C. 
Calame, Poetique des mythes dans la Grece antique, Paris 2000b, and the 
very useful book by Ch. Delattre, Manuel de mythologie grecque, Paris 
2005; on Greek religion, besides the indispensable Greek Religion by W. 
Burkert (Oxford 1985), see the very well-balanced Greek Religion, by 
J. N. Bremmer (Oxford 1999, 2nd ed.), and P. Schmitt-Pantel and L. 
Bruit-Zaidman, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Cambridge 1992). 


1 The question of definitions assigned to the concept of religion beginning with 
Cicero has been notably dealt with by Bremmer (1998) 9—14; for a treatment of 
the problems that modern concepts of myth and mythology pose and their lack 
of pertinence for Greek antiquity, see Detienne (1981) 9—49 and Calame (2003 a) 
3 - 27 - 

2 Regarding the native designations of the different cult practices offered to gods and 
heroes, see the numerous individual studies cited in Calame (1991) 196—303; see 
also Bremmer (1999) 2—6. For the civic framework of Greek religious practices, 
see, for example, Sourvinou-Inwood (1990). 

3 See, for example, Pellizer (1993) 289—99. 

4 For the celebration of the Dionysia, see Easterling (1997) 37— 44 as well as the 
recent work of Sourvinou-Inwood (2002) 67—119 and the contribution ofR. A. 
Buxton on “Tragedy and Greek Myth,” chapter 4 in this volume. 


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5 See Thomas (1989)108—54 and Bowie (2001) 47-62. For a definition of the first 
Greek historiographers as “historiopoietai,” see Calame (2006) 42—64. 

6 There is nothing more misleading than the distinction that E. Cassirer makes in 
his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923—29; English translation 1953—96) and 
later summarizes (1946) between “mythical concepts,” “linguistic concepts,” and 
“intellectual concepts,” leading him to tautologies such as: “L’enracinement pre- 
mier de la conscience linguistique dans la conscience mythico-religieuse s’exprime 
avant tout dans le fait que toutes les figures linguistiques apparaissent en meme 
temps comme des figures mythiques ...” (p. 62). 

7 Euripides, Hippolytus 1423—30; cf. Segal (1996)159— 62, who gives other examples 
of tragedies whose action contains an aetiological conclusion. 

8 Pausanias 2.32.1—4, with the references to the heroic cult devoted to Apollo at 
Troezen as well as at Athens (the hero had a mnema there) that I gave in Calame 
(2000b) 221—4. Al so see Euripides, Hippolytus 58—87 and 1135— 41. 

9 Many examples of the aetiological relationship between “myth” and “ritual” are 
given by Graf (1993) 101—20; cf. also Bremmer (1999) 55—64. For the complex 
symbolic relationships between these two orders of the demonstration and practice 
of religion, see Calame (1996) 15—52. 

10 Homeric Hymn to Demeter 471—82; the Greek text of this passage probably comes 
from the coincidence of two different rhapsodic versions: cf. Richardson (1974) 
304 - 

11 For the meaning of these different technical terms related to the mystery cults, see 
Burkert (1987) 7— 11, and, of course, the excellent remarks by Richardson (1974) 
251 and 302—8. 

12 Homeric Hymn to Demeter 483—9; for a comparative analysis of these two macarismoi, 
whose form is attested in other cults of an initiatory nature, see the ample com- 
mentary of Richardson (1974) 310—14. The bios, understood as material abundance 
stemming from agricultural labor in relation to the mortality of man and his efforts 
to come closer to the gods, dictates the action of Hesiod s poem Works and Days; 
cf. Calame (2005) 48—51. 

13 I have described this discursive transition divided between enounced and enunci- 
ation and leading to the hie et nunc of the poem’s performance in Calame (1997) 
118—33 i for the tripartite structure of the hymnic forms in relation to that of prayers, 
see the numerous references given in Calame (2005) 21—32. 

14 On this historical question, see Richardson (1974) 12—30 and Calame (1997) 132—3 . 

15 Thucydides 3.104.4, who cites under this designation two passages of the Homeric 
Hymn to Apollo (146—50 and 165—72), sung at the time of the musical competi- 
tions of the great Panhellenic festival in honor of the god of Delos, Apollo; for 
other attestations of this and for bibliographical orientation, cf. Calame (2005) 
19—22; as for the musical competition at the Panathenian festival, see, for exam- 
ple, Shapiro (1992) and the remarks of Nagy (1996b) 42—3 and 99—112 regard- 
ing the Pisistratid version of the Homeric poems, perhaps established at this 

16 We can add, to the references on the Delia given in note 13 , Plato, Phaedo 58ab. The 
issue of the reference of the final verses of the poem to the historical circumstances 
of its delivery is well treated by Maehler (1997) 167—70. Other references and 
commentary can be found in Calame (2003 a), a study developed in Calame (2006) 


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17 As for the circumstances of the performance of the dithyramb and issues of form, 
see Ierano (1997) 233-303. 

18 Thucydides 1 .4 and 8 . 1—3 ; see also Herodotus 3 . 122.2, who nevertheless attributes 
the first true thalassocracy to the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, making Minos merely 
a precursor of sorts. For the historicity of the maritime colonial power of Minos 
and its relationship to the external policy of Athens in the fifth century, see the 
bibliographical references given by Hornblower (1991) 18—23, as well as Calame 
(1996) 420-32. 

19 The role of Apollo Archegetes (the ‘Founder’) in colonial expeditions and as the 
architect of new foundation-sites is explored by Detienne (1998) 88—133; for the 
colonizing functions of Apollo Carneius, the horned ram (i.e., leader of the flock), 
in relation to the diffusion and the celebration of the Carneia, see Malkin (1994) 
143 - 58 . 

20 Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo 69— 96, whose mythographical and aetiological allu- 
sions can be deciphered with the aid of the indispensable commentary by Williams 
(1978) 66— 82; for the question of possible bibliographical references to the utter- 
ances of the intervening narrator and poet, see Calame (2005) 76—8, along with 
the secondary bibliography on the issue. 

21 On the question of the mimetic character of Callimachus’ hymn and a poetic 
program that is the object of much controversy, see Calame (2005) 84—7. 

22 Pindar, Pythian Ode 5.72—85, with the commentary offered by Gentili et al. (1995) 
531—4, as well as Calame (2003b) 79—86. 

23 See, on this question in particular, Krummen (1990) 108—41. 

24 Reconstructed from indicators given by the poet himself; the context of the pre- 
sentation of the fifth Pythian Ode is treated in the commentary of Gentili et al. 
(1995) 159-63 and 516-18. 

25 The two versions, Theran and Cyrenean, of a colonization largely directed and 
guided by oracles of Apollo at Delphi are recounted by Herotodus 4.145—57; cf. 
Calame (2003b) 86—108; for the foundation of Thera, see also Malkin (1994) 

26 On the question of the monodic or choral nature of Pindar’s “I,” see, in particular, 
D’Alessio (1994) 120—4, who makes reference to terms of an animated controversy; 
cf. also Calame (2005) 5—7. 

27 The issue of the date of the consecration of the stele containing the text of the paean 
in relation to the renovation of the temple of Apollo is addressed by Vamvouri 
Ruffy (2004) 187—92. 

28 Paean 39 Kappel; these different stopping points are the subject of the commentary 
by Furley and Bremer (2001) 58—84. For the complex structure of the poem, see 
the exhaustive analysis by Kappel (1992) 222—73; f° r the structure of the different 
Greek hymnic forms, see Calame (2005) 21—32. 

29 On this operative distinction between “history /story” and “discourse” and on the 
numerous occasions for interference between these two levels of any utterance, see 
the references in Calame (2005) 1—7. 

30 On the indices of enunciation that are inserted into the performance of the paean 
of Philodamus during the Theoxenia, and on this important holiday in the Delphic 
calendar, see Vamvouri Ruffy (2004) 189—96. 

31 The use of this double ritual invocation, widely attested in various cult circum- 
stances, is illustrated in the exhaustive remarks of Kappel (1992) 65—70 and 225. 


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Greek Myth and Greek Religion 

32 The renovation of the sanctuary at Delphi during the second half of the fourth 
century was undoubtedly an occasion, notably under Athenian pressure, for reaf- 
firming the cult links between Apollo and Dionysus; cf. Vamvouri Ruffy (2004) 

33 See the hypotheses and detailed commentary offered by Kappel (1992) 252—70 and 
by Furley and Bremer (2001) 82—3. 

34 Euripides, Ion 1571—94; for the four tribes presented by Solon, see Plutarch, Life 
of Solon 23.4—5 and already in Herodotus 5.66.2 as well as Aristotle, Constitution 
of Athens 41.2, who attributes this division of the Attic people into four tribes to 
Ion himself. 

35 The manipulation of the genealogy is evident here — indeed contradictory — since 
in the tradition attested as early as Hesiod (fr. 9 Merkelbach-West), Xuthus’ father 
was Hellen and his brothers were Dorus and Aeolus, and he himself was the 
father of Ion: thus it is the Ionians who, from an eponymous standpoint, held the 
subordinate position to the Aeolians and the Dorians: cf. also Herodotus 7.94 and 
8.44.2, as well as the study by Hall (1997) 51—6. On the genealogy and the status of 
Xuthus from the Athenian perspective, see Euripides, Ion 290—3, 673—5, 808—16, 
and 1058—73. 

36 Euripides, Ion 8—36; see also 260—82 and 492—506. In the structuralist perspective 
adopted by Loraux (1981) 207—9, the birth of Ion would replicate, inverted, that 
of the “ autochtone primordial ,” Erichthonius. For the different versions of the birth 
of Erichthonius and of his kourotrophia (the ‘raising of a boy’) by the daughters of 
Cecrops, see the study of Parker (1987) 193—203. 

37 Euripides, Ion 69— 81 ; see also 661—3 > where Xuthus appropriates the same pun. On 
Ion as a “tragedy of empire,” see the references offered by Loraux (1981) 213—15. 

38 Euripides, Ion 1582—8. 

39 Cf. Parker (1996) 142-6, 313, and 325. Only Pausanias 1.31.3 (cf. also 8.1.5) men- 
tions the mnema (‘monument’) consecrated in the deme of Potami to Ion, whose 
father Xuthus, having moved to Athens, assumed the leadership of the Athenian 
army against Eleusis; see also Strabo 8.7.1, who takes up the genealogy proposed 
by Hesiod (cf. supra n. 35), but who indicates that after the victory of Ion against 
the Thracian army of Eumolpus, the Athenians entrusted their city to Ion. On Ion 
as the son of Apollo, see Plato, Euthydemus 302cd (yet another isolated testimony). 

40 Concerning the “culture of choral song” that Greek culture is, see the references 
cited by Kowalzig (2004) 42—65; for ritual memory, see Calame (2006) passim. 


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9: Myth and Greek Art: 
Creating a Visual Language 

Jenifer Neils 

T n perusing any book devoted to Greek art, one is struck by the 
ancient Greeks’ obsession with their gods, heroes, and mytholog- 
ical creatures. From the earliest extant work of figurative art pro- 
duced in the so-called Dark Ages, the terracotta centaur from Lefkandi 
(ca. 950-900 BC), to that icon of late Hellenistic group sculpture, the 
marble Laocoon (ca. 30—20 BC), Greek artists and their patrons were 
drawn to mythological subjects not only for their intrinsic interest but 
also for the important roles they played in explaining the cosmos and 
shedding light on human nature. Although Greek artists shared this 
interest in mythological narrative with poets, they did not illustrate 
written texts; rather, they were guided by that oral culture or Volksvorstel- 
lung that was an essential part of every Greek’s upbringing. 1 They, like 
all artists, were heavily influenced by the work of their predecessors, 
the demands of the marketplace, and the restrictions imposed by their 
medium. That said, Greek narrative art displays an amazing degree of 
imagination, ingenuity, and originality that continues to fascinate today, 
as it must have engaged viewers in antiquity. 

Numerous books, not to mention multivolume lexica, have been 
devoted to the subject of myth in Greek art. 2 It would be foolhardy to 
attempt to encompass the entirety of this intriguing and vast topic in a 
single essay. Therefore, this chapter will examine two specific concerns 
of Greek painters and sculptors when faced with the challenge of nar- 
rating in visual, as opposed to literary, terms a specific story involving 
gods, heroes, or fantastic creatures. First, what devices did the artist 
employ for depicting a myth and how did this visual language come 
about? Second, how did the artist make his chosen theme relevant to a 
particular audience at a specific point in time? In order for a work of art 


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Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language 

to succeed in narrating a myth, it must employ a grammar understood 
by its viewers and relate in some fashion to the Zeitgeist of contem- 
porary society. As much as possible, I will let the art speak for itself 
and examine it independent of any literary tradition. 3 This essay will 
also concentrate on the art of ancient Athens not only because of the 
quantity of extant material, especially painted vases, but also because 
we know more about the cultural and political history of this city than 
that of any other Greek polis. Before analyzing the origins of the visual 
language devised in the Greek pictorial tradition, we will begin with a 
highly developed example of mythical narration. 

An Exemplum 

At about the time that the Parthenon was nearing completion, an Athe- 
nian vase painter (whom we call the Codrus Painter) decorated a wine 
cup, inside and out, with seven deeds of the local hero Theseus (Fig- 
ure 3). In the central tondo the hero is shown in his most readily rec- 
ognizable exploit, the slaying of the Minotaur. Encircling the tondo 
(beginning at 12 o’clock and moving clockwise) and repeated on the 
exterior of the cup are six additional deeds of Theseus: he contends with 
the wrestler Cercyon, fells Procrustes with an axe, topples Sciron offhis 
cliff, drives the Marathonian bull to Athens, binds Sinis to his pine tree, 
and slays the sow in spite of the protests of its aged mistress Crommyo. 
This painted vase is the result of a long tradition of heroic imagery in 
Greek art, and as such represents a fully evolved, sophisticated visual 
language - imagery that cannot be taken literally, but must be carefully 
“read” to be understood. So, for instance, the male figures are all “hero- 
ically” nude, although as a traveler Theseus might be expected to wear 
a tunic, cloak, and traveling cap. His human opponents are portrayed 
as distinctly “other” or unheroic: heavily bearded, balding, older. They 
are shown in compromised poses (falling, legs splayed) and gesturing 
frantically for a reprieve. 4 Theseus’ sword accompanies him in every 
episode, although it is distinctly out of place in the wrestling match; 
however, as one of the gnorismata (tokens) of the hero it is his most 
significant identifying attribute. There are few elements of setting, only 
those necessitated by the scene: Sciron’s rock, the pine tree of Sinis, and 
perhaps the old woman as a local personification of Crommyon. 

But there is more here than meets the eye. Ancient viewers would 
have noticed that some of Theseus’ deeds resembled those of the great 
Panhellenic hero Heracles who captured a boar and a bull and wrestled 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

an ogre named Antaeus, but that other deeds demonstrated greater 
mental than physical prowess by turning the tables, so to speak, on his 
human opponents. Theseus also bears a club, the traditional weapon of 
Heracles, as he drives the bull to Athens. (Later texts claim he obtained it 
in defeating the club-man Periphetes, but this episode is not represented 
on cups such as these.) A more subtle reference to Heracles can be 
found in the tondo where, instead of slaying the Minotaur as in earlier 
images, Theseus is shown dragging the monster from a Doric porch- 
like structure; the meander pattern to the right alerts the viewer to 
the concept of the labyrinth. This rare composition deliberately recalls 
earlier vase paintings of Heracles leading Cerberus from the entrance 
to Hades and so may represent an attempt on the part of the Athenian 
mythmakers to suggest that their hero too overcame death itself and so 
attained immortality. 5 

There was nothing radically new in the depiction of these deeds, 
which had been part of the vase painters’ repertoire since ca. 510 BC, 
nor in the vehicle for their display, the so-called cycle cup — although 
both were quite novel at the end of the previous century. 6 What would 
have impressed viewers of this vase is the startling visual device where 
the figures appear in exactly the same location inside and out, as if one 
were seeing through the walls of the cup. Only in the Sciron and sow 
episodes is Theseus’ pose reversed from back (interior) to front (exterior) 
so that he can maintain the weapon in his right hand. Why would the 
artist go to such pains to echo the pose, placement, and action of the 
hero inside and out? Is it simply an artistic conceit or does it convey a 
specific message to the viewer? It has long been recognized by scholars 
that Theseus here takes on the poses of the famous sculptural group set 
up in the Agora in 477-6 BC, namely the Tyrannicides by the sculptors 
Kritios and Nesiotes (Figure 4). With his cloak draped over his extended 
left arm Theseus not only is defending himself from the tusks of the 
sow, but also is mimicking the older tyrant-slayer Aristogeiton; and with 
Sciron’s foot basin raised overhead he takes on the undefended pose of 
the younger Harmodios. Ironically (to us) the future king of Athens is 
portrayed as a freedom fighter, a hero of the early democracy. 

Further political references could be seen in the episodes placed 
directly above (Cercyon) and below (bull) the Minotaur-slaying. The 
former took place at Eleusis, the latter at Marathon. In Herodotus’ 
account of the Persian Wars (8.64), an omen in the form of a dust cloud 
arose at Eleusis and drifted to Salamis, foretelling the naval victory over 
the Persians. At the earlier battle of Marathon Theseus was said to have 
arisen from the ground to aid his fellow Athenians. The deeds are not 


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Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language 

depicted in chronological order, since Theseus captured the bull after his 
arrival in Athens. So it seems the artist has given these two deeds special 
prominence in the axis perpendicular to the handles because they refer- 
ence locations in Attica closely associated with the defeat of the Persians. 
With its emphasis on the poses of Harmodios and Aristogeiton and its 
subtle references to Salamis and Marathon, this cycle cup does much 
more than recount some of the deeds of the hero Theseus; it rewrites 
history by associating Athens’ glorious Bronze-Age hero with its glori- 
ous present. For the Athenians their myths were their history, and they 
saw no problem in embellishing them for the greater glory of the polis. 

If we think of this wine cup in its original context of the Greek 
symposium, it could have served as an exemplum to young Athenian 
males. They too should perform heroic deeds for the good of their 
city as well-trained athletes, skilled hunters, and brave warriors. The 
calculated poses of Theseus may have recalled to the symposiasts the 
general Miltiades’ exhortation before the great encounter at Marathon 
to the polemarch Callimachus to fight to make Athens free, as the 
Tyrannicides had done before him (Herodotus 6.109). Given the date 
of this vase, its depiction of the hero Theseus served as a role model 
for Athenian youth at the beginning of a new military challenge to the 
democratic polis, that of the recently begun Peloponnesian Wars. Thus 
the Codrus Painter not only invented a new referential form of imagery 
for the myth of Theseus, but also devised a compositional format that 
placed the hero in a position to serve as an example for contemporary 
viewers in late fifth-century Athens. 

When did this sophisticated visual language of myth begin and 
how did it evolve? When did artists incorporate allusions to recent events 
in mythological narratives to reinforce their message? What roles did the 
depictions of Greek myth in media ranging from minutely carved gems 
to vast temple pediments play in society? Because of the great losses 
from antiquity, such as most monumental paintings, these questions are 
not easy to answer. But by starting at the beginning we can perhaps trace 
a likely scenario for how a work of art as multivalent as the Theseus cup 
came about. 

Horse, Bird, and Man: The Artist’s 

In the first two centuries of Greek art (900—700 BC), the figurative 
repertoire of artists consisted of simple geometricized forms: humans, 


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quadrupeds, and birds. With this basic toolkit the artist could create 
super- or subhuman creatures of myth by devising imaginative combi- 
nations. Thus, for instance, attaching a horse’s hindquarters to a human 
resulted in a creature that combined the powers of human intelligence 
and equine strength — making it an equal opponent (Nessus) as well as 
a tutor and friend (Chiron, Pholus) of gods and heroes. In precanonical 
Greek art this hybrid, commonly known as the centaur, was also used 
to depict other monsters such as Medusa (by the addition of a skirt) or 
the Minotaur. A male figure with only an equine tail and ears became 
the subhuman satyr, while a horse protome (forequarters) attached to 
a rooster’s body produced the somewhat ridiculous Mischwesen known 
as the hippalektryon. To create a daemon of subhuman intelligence the 
artist would surmount a human body with an animal’s head, as in the 
case of the canonical Minotaur (see Figure 3). Wings were added to 
horses, enabling them to fly (Pegasus) and power the chariots of heav- 
enly divinities. A female with wings could be either a goddess ( potnia 
theron, Iris, Nike) or a monster, if given an ugly or leering frontal face 
(Harpy, Fury, Medusa). Fish tails added to human torsos resulted in 
fantastic marine creatures such as Triton or Skylla. Finally, perhaps only 
the Greeks would invent a semidivine being that was both male and 
female, Hermaphroditus. 

Another method available to the creative artist for fabricating 
a mythological daemon was simply to multiply its form. Dual- and 
triple -bodied humans, such as the Molione/Actorione and Geryon, are 
formidable opponents of heroes, as are multiheaded dogs (Cerberus, 
Orth us), snakes (Hydra), and hybrids (Chimera). Many mythological 
figures take the form of male twins (Dioscuri, Cercopes, Boreads) or 
female triads (Gorgons, Fates, Graiae). Hecate could be depicted either 
as a normal woman or as a triple -bodied divinity. Most of the canonical 
hybrids were either invented or adapted from Near Eastern or Egyptian 
prototypes (e.g., sphinx, siren) by the mid-seventh century and contin- 
ued relatively unchanged throughout classical art and well beyond. 7 

Other conventions that generally operate in Greek figurative art 
are honor vacui, the horizontal ground line, isocephalism, avoidance of 
the frontal face, and size as an indicator of status. Until specific attributes 
or inscribed names are included in narrative scenes, we cannot always be 
sure that myths are intended, as for example in late-eighth century BC 
scenes of a man hunting a deer (Heracles and the hind?), two males con- 
fronting a tripod (boxers or Apollo and Heracles?), or a man and woman 
boarding a ship (Figure 5: Theseus and Ariadne? Paris and Helen? 
Jason and Medea?). 8 Items of dress, such as belts or special headgear, in 


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Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language 

archaic Greek sculpture and painting may indicate heroic or divine sta- 
tus, but are too generic to be decisive for identification. Old-fashioned 
conveyances such as the chariot or types of armor such as the Dipylon 
shield (as in the hold of the ship in Figure 5) presumably were not used 
in battle in historic times, but whether they allude to the Homeric past 
is an issue that has not been satisfactorily resolved. 9 In later Greek art, 
the figure moving to the right or auspicious side is usually the victor, 
although when this principle was adopted is not easy to determine. It is 
clear enough in two similar Trojan War compositions that are popular 
on Attic black-figure vases of the mid-sixth century: Ajax carrying the 
corpse of Achilles usually moves to the left, while Aeneas rescuing his 
father Anchises moves to the right. 10 

In painting and relief sculpture, elements of setting such as land- 
scape are minimal, 11 and temporal indicators are almost nonexistent. 
Archaic and earlier works of art tend to illustrate the high point of the 
action, for example, the slaying of the monster or the heat of battle, 
rather than episodes taking place before or after the main event. In 
order to represent two events in any particular narrative, an artist might 
conflate two scenes such as King Priam being killed at the altar and his 
grandson Astyanax being hurled from the walls of Troy (Figure 6). In 
the powerful and shocking formula adopted by Attic vase painters, the 
slayer Neoptolemos uses the child as a weapon to cudgel the old man 
to death. Thus, in one blow, two generations and the future of Troy 
are extinguished. This same schema was adapted to a more comic con- 
text in which Heracles likewise slays a king (Busiris) at an altar, holding 
another Egyptian upside down by the ankle. 12 

That these basic principles persisted throughout Greek art can be 
illustrated by a large red-figure skyphos painted about the same time as 
the Theseus cup, ca. 430 BC (Figure 7). 13 The subject is the Return of 
Hephaestus at the point at which the smith god rides his mule into the 
presence of his mother Hera, trapped on a magic throne. The figures 
move to the right on a horizontal ground line and fill the space from top 
to bottom, a principle that results in making Hephaestus much shorter 
than Dionysus. The music-making satyr is also smaller, either because 
he is an attendant, like the girl fanning Hera, or on account of his 
younger age (which, however, is not consistent with his balding head) . 
Each figure lugs along his distinctive attributes (tongs and hammer for 
Hephaestus, kantharos [high-handled cup] and thyrsus [ivy-bedecked 
wand] for Dionysus), although they are hardly necessary for the action 
at hand; in lieu of inscriptions they serve to identify the protagonists. 
There is no reference to the past (Hephaestus does not appear to be 


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drunk — although he wears an ivy wreath — or even lame) or the future 
(no sign of the prize-bride Aphrodite), nor is there any indication of 
setting. Dionysus is the key player here and he is appropriately placed 
in the center of the composition on a large wine vessel. 

A depiction of this same myth on a vase painted a mere ten years 
later demonstrates how radically these basic conventions could be altered 
under the influence of monumental wall painting. The body of a volute- 
crater by Polion (Figure 8) depicts the same scene, but with the figures 
scattered over the surface, and with hints of landscape in the form of 
rocks and trees. 14 The action moves to the left as a satyr helps the 
drunken Hephaestus up from the couch of Dionysus. Hera is relegated 
to the upper left corner, seated frontally to indicate her helplessness, 
and her fan- waving attendant is now a siren with arms. Much of the 
surface is taken up with extraneous satyrs and maenads conversing in 
pairs. Reflecting the composition and style of major painting, this vase 
shows how artists could combine the temporal and spatial aspects of 
a specific episode within a larger format. It also demonstrates how a 
vase-painter could transpose the setting of an age-old myth: instead of 
an equestrian procession it has become a symposium with cushions, 
music, and Dionysus featured in the role of the symposiarch. Such a 
scene is particularly appropriate to the shape of the vase, a wine crater, 
which served as the centerpiece of the symposium. The running figure 
of a satyr who holds the smith god’s tongs and lights his way with a 
torch may have suggested to the painter the ritual torch-race held at the 
Hephaisteia in Athens, for he has represented this event on the neck of 
the vase. Hence this mythological narrative on a symposium vessel (like 
Theseus on the cycle cup, Figure 3 ) can reference aspects of the real life 
of its users, their drinking parties and their festivals. 15 

Naturally, format and medium play major roles in determining 
how mythological scenes are depicted. So, for instance, a vase painter 
portrays the birth of Athena as a tiny doll-like goddess emerging from the 
head of a large enthroned god flanked by as many standing attendants as 
fill the available space. For a sculptor decorating a temple pediment, the 
small goddess would be invisible from below. Thus, on the Parthenon’s 
east pediment, Athena is depicted full-sized standing beside her father, 
flanked by Olympians in various poses to fit the raking angles of the 
pediment. In the small corners are Helios rising and Selene descending, 
who together symbolize both the setting (the heavens) and the time 
(dawn). Round fields such as those of gems, coins, and cup interiors 
usually restrict the protagonists to one or two figures, while square 
fields, such as painted or carved metopes (square plaques in the Doric 


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Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language 

frieze), admit two or three. Long friezes are the most suitable formats 
for multifigured narratives such as the divine procession to the wedding 
reception of Peleus and Thetis painted on several early sixth-century 
Attic vases, or the gigantomachy that is carved in low relief on the 
Treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi (ca. 525 BC) and in high relief on 
the altar of Zeus at Pergamon (mid-second century BC) . In both of 
these multifigured reliefs, the gods and giants are labeled for the sake of 
the viewer, who might otherwise have trouble distinguishing individual 

By examining what myths Greek artists avoided or clearly had dif- 
ficulty depicting, we can come closer to understanding the relationship 
of myth to art and life. Although a favorite topos of Greek myth, the act 
of metamorphosis is especially challenging for any artist. 16 Dionysus’ 
transformation of the Tyrrhenian pirates into dolphins is not essayed in 
Greek art until the later fourth century on the sculpted frieze of the 
Lysicrates monument in Athens, and Actaeon’s conversion into a stag 
is simply a matter of attaching horns to his head, enough to impel his 
hunting dogs to attack him. Artists succeed better at the metamorphosis 
of Odysseus’ companions into swine by the magician Circe, for they 
can revert to the time-honored tradition of tacking animal heads onto 
human bodies to create figures of subhuman intelligence. 17 The mul- 
tiple transformations of Thetis in her wrestling match with her suitor 
Peleus can be symbolized by a lion atop her shoulder, a simple but legible 
solution to the problem of representing corporeal change. Differenti- 
ating between different states of consciousness such as sleep and death 
was also a challenge, and so winged male personifications could repre- 
sent these altered states. Hypnos is much more common and is often 
depicted in miniature, like the lion of Thetis, crouching on the body of 
the sleeping giant Alcyoneus. 18 This marked tendency in Greek art to 
personify abstract concepts even carries over into inanimate objects that 
could easily be represented concretely. A case in point is the elixir of 
immortality that is offered by Athena to one of the Seven who marched 
against Thebes, Tydeus. While in Etruscan art it is depicted as a jug 
held by Athena, the Attic vase painter invents a personification labeled 
Athanasia, a young girl whom the goddess leads by the hand to the 
mortally wounded warrior. 19 

No doubt some myths were too repellant to the ancient Greeks to 
be depicted in art. While fairly common in Greek myth, portrayals of 
human sacrifice are a rarity. As in depictions of animal sacrifice, the few 
images of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia show her being led to the altar, not 
the cutting of her throat. The one rather bloody Attic vase painting of 


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the sacrifice of Polyxena was almost certainly intended for an Etruscan 
audience, since most amphorae of this type (Tyrrhenian) have been 
found in central Italy Likewise, the dismemberment of Pentheus by his 
mother and her bacchic companions was not a common subject. When 
it came to depicting physical deformities, the Greek artist was clearly at 
a loss or unwilling to render the human body in a less than ideal form. 
The one-eyed giant Polyphemus is often larger than Odysseus and his 
men, but given the predilection for profile views, his single eye is not 
evident in the numerous seventh- and sixth-century painted depictions 
of his blinding. The multieyed monster Argos who guarded the cow Io 
was endowed either with two Janus-like faces, or more often multiple 
eyes covering his body. The lame Hephaestus is seldom depicted with 
a deformed foot; only his riding of the mule alludes to his disability 
(see Figure 7). One of the only mythological figures represented as 
severely deformed is Geras, the personification of old age; his pathetic 
emaciated body sometimes bears the brunt of Heracles’ club. 20 Clearly 
the preferred figure of Greek artists was the perfect male specimen, 
namely, the hero. 

Heracles: From Hero to God 

As the Panhellenic hero par excellence, Heracles is represented in all peri- 
ods of Greek art and in nearly all regions of Greece. He appears strug- 
gling with Apollo for the tripod in the earliest narrative art of the Late 
Geometric period (ca. 750-700 BC) and can be found in a Roman copy 
of a late Hellenistic painting transformed into a weary family man with 
Arcadia and his son Telephos. The iconography of Heracles changes 
over time, as does his meaning for a Greek audience, but his popularity 
never seems to wane. He is especially prevalent in Attic vase painting 
from the sixth to the fourth centuries, and it is in this medium that one 
can best plot the changes that occur in his imagery. 

Not surprisingly, in sixth-century Athenian vase painting, myths 
highlighting military, athletic, and hunting prowess predominate, as 
these represent the primary values of elite male society at that time. 
Scenes of the Trojan War, funeral games in honor of kings (Pelias) 
and heroes (Patroclus), and group expeditions in search of major prey 
(Calydonian boar hunt) are popular themes. Because he exemplifies 
all of these talents, Heracles is the sixth-century hero par excellence: he 
fights formidable opponents (Kyknos, Amazons, Geryon), competes in 
athletic contests (wrestling Antaeus, archery competition with Eurytos’ 


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sons), and single-handedly conquers wild beasts (Nemean lion, Ceryni- 
tan hind, Erymanthian boar, Stymphalian birds). By contrast, other 
heroes such as Theseus, Perseus, and Bellerophon have only one claim 
to fame in the art of this period — the conquest of a monster (Minotaur, 
Medusa, Chimera). The labors, deeds, and parerga of the hero fit a vari- 
ety of formats (vases, pediments, metopes, gems) and had a universal 
appeal throughout Greek lands. 

It is enlightening to compare the number of Attic vases with rep- 
resentations of Heracles with those of other heroes. According to the 
Beazley Database there are 3,751 vase paintings of Heracles, compared 
to 786 of Theseus, 114 of Perseus, 27 of Bellerophon, and only 10 of 
Jason. Predictably, Heracles is also the most popular mythical hero in 
Laconian vase-painting, which is limited to the sixth century, and it is 
interesting to note that he is sometimes dressed as a warrior, a feature 
calculated to appeal to the Spartans. 21 On Corinthian vases, Heracles 
is also a common motif, but the choice of deeds is rather different 
from that in the Attic corpus. While the Nemean lion is by far the 
most popular deed on Athenian black-figure vases, that of the Lernaean 
hydra predominates on Corinthian vases, perhaps because the labor was 
performed not far from Corinth. 22 Naturally, Theseus is more popular 
in Athens than elsewhere, but his sixth-century repertoire is limited 
almost exclusively to the Cretan adventure. On the archaic Acropolis, 
Heracles is far more prevalent, being featured on at least four ped- 
iments. This sampling of regional variations demonstrates how local 
taste affected not only the choice of myths but also their manner of 

Looking at Attic vase representations of Heracles diachronically is 
also revelatory. While the Nemean lion constitutes twenty-five percent 
of all black-figure scenes of Heracles, in red-figure before 450 BC the 
percentage drops to a mere four. After 450 a significant shift occurs from 
depictions of his Labors and other adventures to the hero’s apotheosis 
and his appearance in the company of the Olympian gods. In the fourth 
century, the favorite themes are the apples of the Hesperides and his 
initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. These more metaphysical scenes 
can be related to the humanizing process that takes place in literary and 
philosophical circles. Likewise, his appearance as an infant strangling 
the snakes sent by the jealous Hera on early fourth-century silver coins 
from Byzantion to Croton demonstrates a more human side to the 
brawny hero. 23 The fact that Alexander the Great minted coins with 
the head of Heracles in his own likeness attests to the universality of the 
hero as an emblem of “Greekness” in the early Hellenistic period. This 


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ubiquitous and long-lived hero even survived pagan antiquity, emerging 
as the figure of Fortitude in Christian art. 


Some especially gifted artists could rise above the restrictions of their 
particular medium and artistic conventions to produce new perspectives 
on traditional themes. Within the standard repertoire of sixth-century 
mythological vase paintings, one Attic painter, Exekias, stands out for 
his individual treatment of traditional themes and his invention of new 
motifs. In contrast with the work of his contemporaries, Trojan War 
scenes predominate in his repertoire. He takes the suicide of Ajax, nor- 
mally crudely shown as a nude, bleeding warrior on hands and knees 
impaled on his sword, and makes it a psychological drama in which 
Ajax is methodically planting his sword into the ground (see Figure 18). 
Even the palm tree behind the hero is said to be “weeping” in sympa- 
thy with the hero, an unusual instance of the pathetic fallacy. 24 Exekias 
can also be credited with the new motif of Achilles and Ajax gaming, 
first seen on the amphora now in the Vatican, but not attested in any 
extant literary account of the Trojan War. Again, this scene succeeds in 
portraying the personalities of the heroes with a detail as small as the 
heel of Ajax lifted slightly off the ground, which suggests his impetu- 
ous nature. 25 Even the artist’s portrayal of Achilles slaying the Amazon 
Penthesilea (the menacing face of the hero encapsulated in his black hel- 
met contrasting with the unprotected white face of his victim) projects 
in its simplicity more of the drama of the encounter than other depic- 
tions of this duel. By limiting his mythological scenes to one or two 
figures where lesser artists jammed them with subsidiary figures to fill 
the space, Exekias achieved a dramatic intensity not found elsewhere in 
archaic Greek art. 26 

The same kind ofinnovative iconography can be found in the Early 
Classical sculptural program of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (ca. 465- 
457 BC), which also displays an interest in the temporal progression of a 
narrative and the psychologically potent moment. The labors of Hera- 
cles, son of Zeus, were appropriately chosen for the twelve metope slots 
of the porches; this hero was credited with establishing the sanctuary 
of Zeus as well as its games. The fact that Heracles is shown without 
one of his distinctive attributes, his bow, has been interpreted as a cal- 
culated response to the Persian War, which was viewed as a contest of 
spearmen (Greeks) versus archers (Persians). 27 The pediments display 


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a quiet, localized scene on the east, with Zeus in the center, and a 
turbulent battle in the west, presided over by Apollo. 

Because these metopes represent the first known dodecathlon of 
the hero in Greek art, the format may have dictated the number twelve, 
which subsequently became the canonical number of Heracles’ labors. 
The anonymous master designer at Olympia not only varied the tempo- 
ral aspects of these labors by showing some already completed (Nemean 
lion, Figure 9, Stymphalian birds), but also portrayed the hero physically 
aging as he progressed from his first labor (lion), where he is beardless, 
to his attainment of immortality. In a prescient way, the Nemean lion 
metope with its exhausted hero heralds the famous image of the “Weary 
Heracles” devised by the sculptor Lysippus at the end of the fourth cen- 
tury. The last and least represented of Heracles’ labors, cleaning the 
stable of Augias, is one that took place near Olympia and so perhaps 
was invented for this locale. 

Locale is almost certainly responsible for the subject of the temple’s 
east pediment, the chariot race of Pelops and King Oinomaus — a scene 
that clearly references the most prestigious contest of the ancient Games. 
What the viewer beheld was not the race itself, which resulted in the 
death of the king, but a group of figures flanking the central deity 
Zeus, rather like a Renaissance sacra conversazione. As in the suicide 
of Ajax by Exekias, the viewer is presented with the psychologically 
tense moment before the inevitable bloodshed; only the face of the seer 
registers the tragic events to come. The artist has managed to convey 
the personalities of the protagonists with the subtle language of stance 
(haughty Oinomaus with arm akimbo), gesture (his brooding wife with 
her hand to her chin), and facial expression (furrowed brow of the seer) 
so that it is easy to identify them even if the story is not well known. 
While the east pediment represents the prelude to a wedding, the west 
shows the outcome of a wedding where chaos has erupted because of 
the drunkenness of the centaurs. In many ways, the west pediment is 
more traditional, with its big on-going battle (centauromachy), a subject 
readily adaptable to the challenging triangular spaces of temple facades 
and one much favored by Archaic and Classical artists. 28 

The Big Battles 

Although battle imagery had been part of the Athenian painted reper- 
toire since at least the end of the Middle Geometric period (ca. 770 BC) 
and had remained a popular theme, it came into its own in the wake 


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of the Persian Wars. The most commonly depicted multifigured bat- 
tles were the centauromachy and the Amazonomachy, which became 
ubiquitous in architectural sculpture and wall painting during the Clas- 
sical period, especially in Athens, where the themes were reprised on 
large red-figure vases. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the beloved 
heroes Theseus and Heracles took part in both. These battles make their 
appearance in monumental wall painting in the Theseum in Athens, 
in friezes within the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, and not once, but 
twice on the Parthenon (west and south metopes, and statue of Athena 
Parthenos) . We have already noted the centauromachy of Theseus in 
the west pediment at Olympia, and it was engraved on the shield of 
the colossal Bronze Athena by the Athenian sculptor Phidias on the 
Acropolis. The battle of Theseus and the Amazons was depicted in the 
Stoa Poikile by the mural painter Mikon and by Phidias on the foot- 
stool of the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia, while that of 
Heracles was carved on the bar of the throne. The trend continues in the 
fourth century outside Athens, with the Amazonomachy and centauro- 
machy on the metopes of the Tholos at Delphi and the battle with the 
Amazons in the west pediment of the temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus 
and on one of the friezes of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. And even 
in the Hellenistic period these themes are reprised in the architectural 
sculpture of numerous monuments, particularly heroa (mausoleum at 
Belevi, Ptolemaion at Limyra). 29 

Scholars have detected a slight but important change in these pop- 
ular battles in the early fifth century BC. The battle with the centaurs 
moves indoors to the wedding feast, so that women are present, includ- 
ing the important bride Hippodameia. The Amazonomachy, at least in 
Attic depictions, is the female warriors’ expedition to Athens to res- 
cue their queen Antiope and takes place on the slopes of the Acropolis 
itself, recalling the Persians’ violation of Athena’s sanctuary in 480 BC. 
Tellingly, Mikon ’s painting of Theseus fighting the Amazons was jux- 
taposed with the famous painting of the Battle of Marathon in the Stoa 
Poikile in Athens, and it is generally believed that these “big battle” 
scenes allude to the Greeks’ victories over the Persians. These instances 
demonstrate the malleability of myth in art, which can be adapted to 
new political circumstances as needed. However, the appearance of the 
Amazonomachy on the tomb of a Persian satrap in Caria would indi- 
cate that they had become stock themes by the mid-fourth century 
BC, and the political allusions were either different or irrelevant. The 
Amazon theme was revived ca. 200 BC, when Attalus I dedicated the 


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two-thirds life-size bronze figures of dead barbarians (giant, Amazon, 
Persian, Galatian) on the Athenian Acropolis, in commemoration of his 
own victories over the Gauls. 30 

Myth and Politics 

This symbiosis between mythical representations and contemporary 
politics is most evident in Athens because of the large number of extant 
vases and sculptures, as well as texts describing lost works of art. It has 
been documented that the cycle cups devoted to the youthful deeds of 
Theseus began to appear just as Cleisthenes was reforming the political 
system from tyranny to democracy, ca. 510—500 BC. Needing some- 
thing grander than a mere Minotaur-slayer to reflect their new status, 
the Athenians embellished the life of their local hero by giving him a 
series of youthful deeds akin to those of the renowned hero Heracles. 
The cycle cup (and later the metopes of the Treasury of the Athenians 
at Delphi and those of the Hephaesteum) was the vehicle invented to 
publicize these new exploits, which by combination with the Minotaur 
made clear to the viewer that Theseus was being depicted. While many 
scholars have posited an epic poem of the life of Theseus as the source 
for these representations, the cycle cups almost never show the deeds 
in chronological order; rather, we have here a scenario where Athenian 
artists faced the challenge of grafting new exploits onto the persona of 
a well-known local hero, and so devised an until-now novel, cyclical 
mode of narration for the dissemination of the hero’s early life. 

Similarly, in the mid to late fifth century, when the Athenians 
wished to highlight their myth of autochthony, they commissioned 
artists to depict the birth of Erichthonius, the offspring of Hephaestus’ 
unsuccessful attempt on Athena that resulted in the impregnation of the 
earth. The baby is usually shown in the arms of Ge, who rises out of the 
ground to hand him over to his surrogate mother Athena, while male 
figures such as Cecrops, Zeus, or Hephaestus look on with approval. 31 
However, on one of the latest versions (Figure 10) produced during the 
Peloponnesian Wars, the earth goddess is shown seated on the ground 
in a luxurious garden filled with lovely women; Athena dashes forward 
with a receiving blanket while baby Erichthonius reaches toward her. 
Because the three girls looking down from above must be the daughters 
of Cecrops on the Acropolis, Ge is here identified as Attica, both earth 
in general and a place personification. This vase by the Meidias Painter 


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is a squat lekythos, or perfume flask used by women, and its function 
may account for the unique feminization of this founding myth of 
Athens. 32 

In the past, scholars argued for a close correlation of myth depic- 
tions and contemporary political events. The classic example is Board- 
man’s argument that the mid-sixth-century black-figure hydriae (water 
jugs) with scenes of Athena driving Heracles to Olympus in a char- 
iot were prompted by the tyrant Peisistratus’ stratagem for retaking 
the Acropolis, namely driving into Athens with a tall girl dressed up 
as Athena (Herodotus 1.60). Peisistratus’ personal identification with 
Heracles would then be the impetus for all the Archaic pediments on the 
Acropolis that depict the hero, and much else in sixth-century Athenian 
art. 33 More recently doubts have been cast on this approach, especially, 
as we have seen above, because Heracles was such a universal hero and 
one of great popularity at all times in Greek art. In his apotheosis, he 
represents the aspirations of Everyman to become immortal. 


Immortal, ageless, and omnipotent, the Olympian gods were objects of 
intense veneration; consequently their most significant form of rep- 
resentation in Greek art was the cult statue, few of which survive. 
Although these statues per se had little or no narrative content, they 
often bore subsidiary decoration of a mythological nature, as we have 
already noted in the case of the Athena Parthenos (centauromachy on 
sandals, Amazonomachy and gigantomachy on shield). Likewise, the 
throne of Zeus at Olympia and the painted fence surrounding it carried 
a number of disparate themes, but some clearly related to his role as 
the god of justice (the slaughter of the Niobids, the rape of Cassandra, 
Prometheus). Cult statue bases, in particular, seem to have been loci 
for myths relating to the famous progeny of the gods in the Classical 
period; so, for instance, the bedecking of Pandora in the Parthenon, the 
birth of Erichthonius in the Hephaesteum, the anados (rising from the 
ground) of Aphrodite at Olympia, and the presentation of Helen on 
the Nemesis base at Rhamnus. These contexts, like the east pediment 
of the Parthenon with the birth of Athena, allowed for the inclusion of 
all or most of the Olympian gods, as well as other lesser deities such as 
Helios and Selene. 34 While the collectivity of the canonical twelve gods 
is represented for the first time on the Parthenon frieze in the mid-fifth 


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Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language 

century, they were certainly referenced in earlier imagery where groups 
of them are shown seated together (e.g., east frieze of the Siphnian 
Treasury at Delphi, ca. 530-525 BC). 

The one narrative episode in which a large number of gods par- 
ticipate is the gigantomachy, a theme that first occurs in the early sixth 
century on large Attic vases dedicated on the Acropolis and continues 
until the Hellenistic period in relief sculpture. Its most famous mani- 
festation may have been in textiles, for the subject was woven into the 
peplos or woolen robe presented to Athena Polias at her major Athe- 
nian festival, the Panathenaia. The central figures in most of the fuller 
versions of this battle are Zeus, Athena, Heracles, and Ge, but even 
deities from an earlier generation, such as Themis, can take part, as on 
the north frieze of the Siphnian Treasury. Thereafter, and on smaller 
fields such as amphorae and metopes, individual duels are depicted, the 
most popular being Athena versus Enceladus. That this theme could 
also allude to the Persian Wars is perhaps indicated by the red-figure 
lekythos in Cleveland ofca. 480 BC (Figure 11), where the giant’s shield 
device is a centaur brandishing a tree. 

Another popular theme involving the gods is amorous pursuit, 
particularly of mortals. Young Trojan princes appear to be the most 
attractive victims; Zeus pursues Ganymede, who is given a hoop to indi- 
cate his youth, while Eos carries off Tithonus with his usual attribute, 
a lyre. She also snatches up the young hunter Cephalus, son of the 
Athenian princess Herse by Hermes. Taking after their mother Eos, the 
winged wind gods are also notorious pursuers in Attic art; Zephyrus 
was attracted to the beautiful boy Hyacinthus, while his brother Boreas 
chased the Athenian princess Oreithyia. 35 Perhaps not surprisingly, given 
its consequences for mankind, the myth of Hades’ rape of Persephone 
is largely ignored in Greek art, except in ritual (terracotta plaques from 
Locri) or funerary contexts (Vergina tomb). 36 

One of the most common manifestations of the individual gods 
in Greek art is what one might call their epiphanies. Whether descend- 
ing from the sky, as in the case of Nikes alighting on the roofs of 
temples in the form of marble acroteria (roof sculptures), or emerg- 
ing from the earth, as in the various anadoi of goddesses like Perse- 
phone and Aphrodite, divinities who magically appear in human or 
heroic contexts are especially favored. Athena, for instance, is regu- 
larly depicted at the side of heroes (Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Jason), 
not actively involved (see Figure 9), but simply standing in a bouleutic 
capacity as their patron deity. Apollo and Artemis are often depicted 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

as a pair at weddings, providing music as the bridal couple depart in 
their chariot. Most common of all is Eros, who flutters around mortal 
brides on wedding vases, ensuring the appropriate romantic ambience. 
On a somewhat darker note, divine mothers (Thetis, Eos) look on as 
their sons (Achilles, Memnon) fight duels in the Trojan War. Often, 
on Classical vases and votive reliefs, deities are shown pouring liba- 
tions onto altars, either singly or in groups, such as the Delian triad 
(Apollo, Artemis, and their mother Leto). As Himmelmann has shown, 
the pouring of a libation by the gods is not a rite performed for the 
benefit of someone else, but is an act in which the gods reveal their own 
sanctity . 37 


As we have seen in the discussion above, mythical representations are 
hardly static, and they changed considerably over the many centuries 
of Greek art. Some common trends are the “youthening” of gods and 
heroes, the decline in monstrosity, along with increasing naturalism, and 
the tendency for narrative subjects to become purely decorative. Thus 
Dionysus and Hermes lose their beards in the change from black- to red- 
figure vase painting, and Apollo can be portrayed as a young boy playfully 
killing a lizard ( Apollo Sauroktonos) in the mid-fourth century. Medusa 
becomes a beautiful woman (albeit with snaky locks), and Athena no 
longer pops out of Zeus’ head as a doll-like creature, but stands regally 
beside him. Sirens become conventional mourners on late Classical 
grave stelae, battles with Amazons and centaurs are stock themes in 
post-Classical architectural sculpture, and Dionysus and his retinue are 
ubiquitous on painted pottery of the fourth century. Nike, who once 
bore tokens of victory to mortals, becomes a purely symbolic figure, as 
does Eros. 

In this discussion, readers may have missed some of their favorite 
subjects, such as the Trojan Horse, faithful Penelope, the birth of Helen 
from the egg, or the voyage of the Argo, themes that are strangely nearly 
absent from Greek art. Why Greek artists or their patrons preferred 
certain subjects over others is still a matter of speculation since we have 
no testimonials to guide us. Future excavation, especially of areas beyond 
the Greek mainland, may bring to light new and different mythical 
representations to add to our vast store of images. This artistic legacy 
remains one of the richest sources for our understanding of Greek myth 
and its role in Greek life. 


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Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language 

Bibliographic Note 

Rather than provide a footnote for every image mentioned in this essay, 

I recommend that readers pursue their own interests by consulting the 
appropriate entries in the comprehensive Lexicon Iconographicum Mytholo- 
giae Classicae (Zurich 1981—1997). Those without access to this resource 
can consult the handbook of Carpenter (1991), a compendium of over 
300 images arranged typologically. Books devoted to Greek art and 
myth abound; some of the more recent include Shapiro (1994), Wood- 
ford (2003), and Small (2003). For textual sources on works of art no 
longer extant, see Pollitt (1990). 


1 For the argument that Greek artists do not illustrate texts, see Snodgrass (1998) 
and Small (2003). 

2 See Steuben (1968); Gantz (1993); Carpenter (1991). The most useful source for 
illustrations of Greek myth is LIMC. 

3 For this reason, I will not consider the vase-painting of South Italy, which directly 
references theatrical performances. For representations of Greek tragedy, see O. 
Taplins essay in Easterling (1997): 69—90. 

4 For behavior and gestures that characterize the Other in Athenian vase painting, 
see McNiven (2000). 

5 On Heracles in the Underworld, see Wiinsche (2003) 

6 For these youthful deeds of Theseus, see Neils (1987) and LIMC 7 (1994) s.v. 
Theseus (J. Neils). 

7 On the origins and development of Greek Mischwesen see Padgett (2003). Medusa 
is an exception to the rule, as she eventually loses her monstrous appearance and 
paralyzes men with her beauty. Mayor (2000) proposes that some mythological 
creatures owe their invention to the Greeks’ discovery of fossils. For illustrations 
of some of these precanonical hybrids, see Schefold 1966. 

8 For such problems of identification in early Greek myth scenes, see Fittschen 
(1969) and Ahlberg-Cornell (1992). 

9 For the problems surrounding the Dipylon shield, see Hurwit (1985) and the 
convenient summary by M. Moore in CVA New York 5 (USA 37, 2004): 8. 

10 See Woodford and Loudon (1980). 

II See Chapter 11 by Cohen in this volume. 

12 I owe this observation to Ian McPhee. On Heracles and Busiris, see M. C. Miller 

13 Toledo Museum of Art 1982.88. See CVA Toledo 2 (USA 20, 1984): pis. 84—7 
(C. Boulter and K. Luckner). 

14 Ferrara, Museo Archeologico 3033. See Archeologica classica 5: pis. 62—5. 

15 For the relation of this vase to the Hephaisteia, see Froning (1971): 78—81. 

16 See Davies (1986). 

17 It should be noted that the men are given a variety of heads, not just swine as in 
the Odyssey. See Giuliani (2004). 


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18 For these and other personifications, see Shapiro (1993). On Hypnos ibid. 148—58. 

19 See Neils (1994). 

20 On mythical figures with physical deformities, see Garland (1995). 

21 For Heracles in Laconian vase painting, see Pipili (1987): 1— 13, in— 12. 

22 For Heracles in Corinthian vase painting, see Amyx (1988) 2: 628—32. 

23 On Heracles in the Classical period, see Vollkommer (1988). 

24 On weeping palms see Hurwit (1982) and the responses in CJ 78 (1983): 199— 201. 

25 On this point, see Moore (1980). 

26 Boardman (1978) demonstrates Exekias’ special interest in Trojan War scenes and 
credits him with the invention of nine previously unrepresented scenes. 

27 For the suppression of Heracles’ bow, quiver, and arrows on the Olympia metopes, 
see Cohen (1994). 

28 For the sculptures of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, see Ashmole (1972): 1—89. 

29 For Amazons in Greek art until the end of the fifth century, see Bothmer 1957. 
For examples in Hellenistic architectural sculpture, see Webb (1996). 

30 For the Attalid dedication, see Stewart (2004): 181—236. 

31 On representations of the birth of Erichthonius and their relation to Athenian 
autochthony, see Shapiro (1998). 

32 Cleveland Museum of Art 82. 142. Attic red-figure lekythos attributed to the Mei- 
dias Painter, ca. 420—410 B.C. See Neils (1993). 

33 See Boardman (1972). 

34 On sculpted cult statue bases, see Kosmopoulou (2002): 1 11—44. 

35 On these scenes in Attic art, see Kaempf-Dimitriadou (1979) and Lefkowitz (2002). 

36 On the tomb painting at Vergina, see Andronikos (1994): esp. 100— 114. 

37 Himmelmann (1959). 


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figure 3. Deeds of Theseus. Attic red-figure cup attributed to the Codrus Painter 
from Vulci, ca. 430 BC. London, British Museum E 84. (Photo: Courtesy of the 
Trustees of the British Museum.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 4. Tyrannicides. Casts of Roman marble copies after bronze originals by 
Kritios and Nesiotes, ca. 477—476 BC. (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 5. Departure of a Hero. Attic Late Geometric spouted crater from Thebes, 
ca. 730—720 BC. London, British Museum 1899.2-19.1. (Photo: Courtesy of the 
Trustees of the British Museum.) 

figure 6. Death of Priam. Attic black-figure amphora by Lydos from Vulci, ca. 
550 BC. Berlin, Antikensammlungen 1685. (Drawing after Gerhard 1843.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 7 . Return of Hephaestus. Attic red-figure skyphos attributed to the Curti 
Painter, ca. 420 BC. Toledo Museum of Art 1982.88. Purchased with funds from 
the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1982. (Photo: Photo 
Inc., Toledo, Ohio.) 

figure 8. Return of Hephaestus. Attic red-figure volute-crater by Polion from 
Spina, ca. 420 BC. Ferrara, Museo Nazionale di Spina 3033. (Drawing after 
Aurigemma 1935.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 9. Heracles and the Nemean Lion. Metope from the Temple of Zeus at 
Olympia, ca. 465—457 BC. (Photo: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 
Alison Frantz Photographic Collection, PE 199.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure io. Birth ofErichthonius. Attic red-figure squat lekythos attributed to the 
Meidias Painter, ca. 420—410 BC. Cleveland Museum of Art 1982.142. Purchase, 
Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Bequest, 1982. (Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 1 1 . Battle of Athena and a Giant. Attic red-figure lekythos attributed to 
Douris, ca. 490 BC. Cleveland Museum of Art 1978.59. Purchase from the J. H. 
Wade Fund, 1978. (Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 18. The Suicide of Ajax. Black-figure amphora by Exekias (drawing). 
Boulogne, Chateau-Musee, 558. Ca. 530 BCE. (Photograph after E. Pfuhl, Malerei 
und Zeichnung der Griechen. III. Band (Munich 1923) fig. 234.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

io: Mythic Landscapes 
of Greece 

Ada Cohen 

T he survival of a substantial body of ancient Greek literary 
production — together with roughly two centuries of mod- 
ern scholarship — has left no doubt that the ancient Greeks had 
a very rich mythic imagination, constantly preoccupied with the deeds 
of gods and heroes. Especially influential was the cluster of tales nar- 
rated in Homeric poetry, which over the centuries consistently served 
as the basis for Greek education. Myth was so pervasive in Greek life 
and thought that in the fourth century BCE Plato sought to control 
its telling. In the second book of the Republic, Plato’s Socrates severely 
criticized the fictitious stories told by Homer, Hesiod, and other poets 
(even though Plato himself employed myth in his philosophical dia- 
logues). Socrates argued that the majority of myths should be left out 
of the ideal state and its curriculum for the young, unless they commu- 
nicated noble ideas ( Republic 376C-377E). Real Greek cities, however, 
tolerated and celebrated a variety of mythical traditions, including those 
whose messages were less than uplifting, making it clear that Greece was 
fundamentally a culture of myth. But did the Greeks care to envisage 
the highly varied landscape configurations that hosted their myths? Was 
Greece a culture of landscape in addition to being a culture of myth? 

Archaeology has recently done much to reconstruct aspects of 
ancient Greece’s physical environment, both in its natural and in its 
cultivated states, and to clarify the relation of city to countryside, as well 
as the patterns of exploitation of the latter by the people who lived in it. 
Landscape, however, is not only a form of physical environment but also 
an artistic genre. Less self-evidently, it has been defined as an attitude, 
a particular way of looking at the world. Because they are conceptual, 
the two interrelated issues of landscape as a genre and as an attitude 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

are controversial. The question of whether ancient Greek culture and 
art had a concept of landscape, and by extension an appreciation for it, 
goes back to the nineteenth century and continues to be debated in the 
present day 

More often than not, the answer to this question has been nega- 
tive. Histories oflandscape in the western world typically ignore ancient 
Greek manifestations and consider the art oflandscape an invention of 
modernity, a belief that goes back to the middle of the nineteenth 
century, if not before. Literary scholars have noted the lack of a pre- 
cise ancient Greek word for landscape, the term topia dating to the 
Roman period, though Socrates does speak periphrastically of “places 
and trees” - “khoria kai dendra ” (xcoplot koci SsvSpoc). They have also 
noted that ancient Greek literature demonstrates greater concern for 
human actions and feelings than for descriptions of natural scenery; 
when it does describe nature, literature may use it metaphorically in 
order ultimately to assign human values to it . 1 Furthermore, it is typical 
for geographical and landscape features to be conflated with eponymous 
deities resident in them and imagined in human form. 

A similar anthropocentrism is evident in the visual arts, which 
focus on human narratives and human situations more than on their 
setting. Already in the Archaic period, there was the occasional vase 
painting or relief sculpture that attempted to convey a sense of envi- 
ronment, usually via trees, bushes, shoots of grass, rocks, or caves, as 
well as human-made items such as doors, fountain houses, columns, 
or temple-like structures. On very rare occasions, the waves of the sea 
appeared. The Classical period did not go much beyond the Archaic 
and continued with a restrained repertoire and a symbolic employment 
oflandscape . 2 

When viewed against other ancient visual cultures such as Egypt, 
the Near East, or Rome, where landscape views abound, Archaic and 
Classical art’s use oflandscape seems quite modest, manifesting a dis- 
tinct preference for single elements and close-ups rather than panoramic 
views. This was still the case in the Hellenistic period, when the impulse 
to render spacious environments quickened, both in literature and, less 
emphatically, in art. In literature, the third-century-BCE poet The- 
ocritus has been considered the inventor of the genre of pastoral, which 
gave Hellenistic urban elites, via its imagistic language, opportunities to 
dream about nature . 3 In the visual arts, the city of Alexandria and the 
artists who worked there have been credited with an equivalent orien- 
tation. Even then, however, the human figure continued to be the main 
carrier of meaning. Despite an observable intensification of Hellenistic 


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artists’ willingness to incorporate aspects of landscape in their work — 
similar to contemporary poets’ interest in bucolic themes — they contin- 
ued to offer condensed visions of physical space and to render landscape 
as a relatively discontinuous conglomeration of individual elements. 

The Question of Origins 

Given this complex state of affairs, scholars of Greek antiquity have 
discerned the “origins” of the landscape form variously in the Archaic, 
Classical, and Hellenistic periods, while scholars of landscape art have 
largely ignored Greece, considering it an example of a “pre-landscape” 
culture. In recent years, however, prehistoric Aegean wall painting has 
started cautiously to appear in some histories of the landscape genre 
in the West. A premier example is the “miniature” fresco with a naval 
scene from the so-called West House at the prehistoric settlement at 
Akrotiri on the island of Thera. This and other wall paintings — some 
figural, others omitting the human body entirely, and still others, such as 
the Naval Fresco, combining the two — were miraculously preserved after 
a volcanic eruption, which has most recently been dated around 1650— 
1600 BCE. The Naval Fresco decorated the upper section of the south 
wall of a second-story room. It was accompanied by a scene of warfare on 
the opposite wall, along with a “Nilotic” landscape with animal chases 
on an adjacent wall, as well as other scenes that no longer survive. 
It seems to have been part of a program featuring at least five towns 
distributed on four walls, and at least partly associated with warfare. 

Best preserved are the two towns of the Naval Fresco with a stretch 
of sea between them, on which a fleet of festively decorated ships with 
warrior passengers travels in the company of dolphins. In the Aegean 
this is the earliest visual manifestation, rather than simple insinuation, 
of the idea of travel within a landscape. The town on the left, built near 
a river and mountains, is smaller and lacks a harbor (Figure 12). The 
larger town on the right (not illustrated) is built on a rocky promontory 
with two small harbors. Both towns are seen from a distance and feature 
storied buildings of varying size, stacked in depth. The buildings are 
placed in encompassing landscapes, populated by animals and male and 
female figures, who watch the departure (or passage) of the fleet in 
the town on the left and welcome the fleet on the right. The variety 
of cartographic perspectives utilized - plan, elevation, oblique views - 
aids the interpretation of this scene as an early form of topographical 
map, aiming to portray specific locations, although, given the generic 


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appearance of the towns, there is little agreement on which ones . 4 In 
a general sense these towns conform to what we know about Aegean 
island landscape and architecture at large. 

The question to ask here is the reverse of the one posed above 
in connection with Greek culture of the historical period. In this case 
we can easily agree that the prehistoric Aegean was indeed a landscape 
culture, with an interest in visually expressing expansive views. But was 
it a culture of myth? More specifically, had it begun to formulate the 
foundations of the mythic imagination of the historical Greeks centuries 
later? Recent scholarship has entertained the possibility that the marine 
iconography of the Theran miniature fresco enacts an epic/heroic scene 
with poetic connections, rather than history or daily life . 5 The fresco 
has thus been taken as evidence for the existence of an early genre of 
epic poetry contemporary to it. People and places are not identifiable, 
at least from our distant vantage point, but they speak of a mythical 
worldview, populated by heroes and communicated via a set of picto- 
rial conventions. Accordingly, all walls of the Theran room could have 
participated in interlinked narratives enacting an adventurous voyage in 
the eastern Mediterranean, much like the later Odyssey Landscapes, a 
famous Roman fresco from a house on the Esquiline Hill in Rome . 6 
Dated in the first century BCE and inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, this 
selectively depicts Odysseus’ adventures on his long return trip home 
to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. The setting clearly dominates over the 
figures. The atmospheric vistas are quite different from the crisp linear 
style of the Naval Fresco, but the underlying narrative impetus may be 
similar. A new interpretation of the Naval Fresco disassociates it from the 
epic genre but maintains the mythical connection, this time in light of 
the cluster of myths associated with the Hyperboreans, a fantasy group 
living at the far reaches of the earth . 7 

Art and Literature 

Whether we include or exclude the prehistoric Aegean from consid- 
eration, it seems that the story of Greek landscape is discontinuous, 
its employment governed more by the particulars of given situations 
than by subscription to period-wide totalizing worldviews. Of course 
the search for the origins of genres should have a place in intellectual 
history, but it would be wrong to elevate Greek emphases and prefer- 
ences to a consistently held viewpoint and to conclude that the culture 
lacked a concept of landscape. Both literature and the visual arts invoke 


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landscape strategically. In real life, a pilgrim may pay attention only to 
the sacred elements in a landscape: a choice of emphasis, not a concep- 
tual or perceptual limitation. When invoking single trees and groves as 
noteworthy spatial markers in the second century CE, the travel writer 
Pausanias, to whom we owe much of our knowledge of ancient sites 
and now-lost monuments, did not linger on their greenery or on the 
flowers and fruits they produced, but on their cultic associations, as well 
as associations with important events of the classical past. He described 
buildings and other monuments of the cityscape for similar reasons. 

Pausanias’ literary vision was selective because of the circumstances 
and aims of his work, but this does not mean he did not see or appreci- 
ate more than he recorded. In trying to communicate, he pointed out 
what he considered communicable: memorable features of historical, 
mythological, and religious importance, landmarks of communal value. 
The beauty of nature may be apprehended privately and need not be 
shared with others. A statement about the audiences of tragedy pre- 
served by Athenaeus, a writer of the end of the second century CE, and 
attributed to the comedian Antiphanes suggests that prior knowledge 
completes what genre leaves unsaid: “Let me but mention Oedipus, 
and they know all the rest: his father was Laius, his mother Iocasta; they 
know who his daughters are, his sons, what he will suffer, what he has 
done. If, again, one speaks of Alcmeon, straightway he has mentioned 
all his children, and has told that he killed his mother in a fit of madness” 
(6.222B, trans. C. B. Gulick). In the case of landscape, both knowledge 
and imagination may be put to work at the prompting of a visual or 
literary clue. 

In contrast to their predecessors in the nineteenth and earlier 
twentieth centuries, art theorists and art historians today embrace a 
view of landscape as a system of notional signs rather than as a record 
of perception; as a medium of cultural expression rather than as a 
genre. Recent landscape theory has done much to draw attention to 
the prescriptive and rhetorical ambitions of landscape and has blurred 
the boundaries between the ideal and the real. Even the interpreta- 
tion of extremely naturalistic landscapes of the seventeenth through the 
nineteenth centuries in Europe, periods traditionally believed to have 
developed a concept and genre of “pure” landscape, has been moving 
away from reality in order to highlight the symbolic and the politi- 
cal dimensions. This interpretive shift has implications for antiquity: it 
enables us more than ever before to explore ancient landscape in light 
of its roles and functions in particular situations, rather than as an all- 
embracing mentality. If all landscape art is a system of signs and a body of 


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representations more than an empirical fact, Greek art’s insistent but dis- 
continuous use of landscape elements as signs is nothing extraordinary 
or unusual. Furthermore, in our own era we have become especially 
aware of the evocative aura of the close-up, particularly in photography. 
If a tree photographed by Ansel Adams constitutes landscape, why not 
one painted by the “Kleophrades Painter”? 

The selectivity of the Greek imagination — with its emphases as 
well as its exclusions — is one of its most interesting aspects, and it is rele- 
vant to the study of both mythological narrative and landscape descrip- 
tion. What follows is an exploration of this intersection of narrative 
and description in light of common as well as rarely depicted myths in 
painting and sculpture. In the context of the visual arts, scholars have 
repeatedly stressed that landscape served primarily narrative functions 
by localizing events. It has recently been argued that landscape elements 
in vase painting may have even served to link events and scenes that 
were temporally and spatially separated. For example, the presence of a 
palm tree may have forged narrative links between depictions of Ajax’ 
suicide and his game of dice with Achilles at an earlier time. 8 Given 
the dominance of mythological narrative in Greek art and culture, the 
intersection of myth, as known to us via various textual sources, and 
landscape emerges as a key issue for understanding the range of the 
Greek mythical imagination. 

Greek anthropocentrism is clearly expressed by Socrates in Plato’s 
Phaedrus (230C— D), where the philosopher states that he learns from the 
people in the cities, not the trees in the country. Nevertheless, evocative 
descriptions of trees and other landscape elements do occur in Greek 
texts, articulated not least by Socrates himself when he describes, in the 
very same work, the beauties of the banks of the Uissus River, where he 
has gone with his companions. This is a pleasant, breezy, fragrant spot 
with a shady plane tree, a spring, and soft grass under the summer noise 
of the cicadas (Plato, Phaedrus 230B-C). 

Literary descriptions refer equally to the human landscape, the 
Olympian realm, and the landscape of the Underworld. The mythical 
landscape is a combination of all three realms, which are united by the 
occasional hero but primarily by the gods, who move freely back and 
forth. Homer has passages on the Greek landscape, as is occasionally the 
case with Hesiod’s Works and Days. The contexts in Greek tragedy are 
varied and flexible, however briefly referred to in the text or summarily 
indicated on stage by scenic props and painted backdrops. In Sophocles’ 
Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone describes the grove of the Semnai Theai, 


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Mythic Landscapes of Greece 

full of trees and plants. The play also includes a beautiful hymn to 
Attica, addressed by the chorus to an arriving stranger and populating 
the physical landscape with deities: 

In this country of fine horses, stranger, you have come to 
the choicest rural dwellings, to white Colonus, where the 
melodious nightingale most likes to stay and sing her song 
beneath the green glades, living amid the wine-dark ivy and 
the inviolable leafage of the goddess, rich in fruit, never 
vexed by the sun or by the wind of many winters, where the 
reveller Dionysus ever treads the ground, in company with 
his divine nurses. 

And there flourishes ever day by day, fed by dew from 
heaven, the narcissus with its lovely clusters, the ancient 
crown of the two great goddesses, and the crocus that gleams 
with gold; nor are the sleepless streams that flow from the 
waters of Cephisus diminished, but ever each day the river, 
quick to bring crops to birth, flows over the plains of the 
broad-breasted earth with moisture free from stain. Nor is 
this place rejected by the choruses of the Muses, nor by 
Aphrodite of the golden reins. 

(668-93, trans. H. Lloyd-Jones) 

The chorus in Antigone transports the audience to the city and its natural 
setting in a very economical but effective way: 

Sun’s beam, fairest of all 
that ever till now shone 
on seven-gated Thebes; 

O golden eye of day, you shone 
coming over Dirce’s stream. 

(100-105, trans. D. Grene) 

Philostratus the Elders Imagines in the second/third century CE (1.12- 
13) contains a lengthy ekphrastic description of the landscape of Bospho- 
rus. Homer (e.g., Odyssey 10.505-15; 10.528-9; 11.573; 24.10-14; 
24.204; Iliad 23.71-4), Hesiod ( Tlteogony 726-813), Pindar ( Olympian 
2.56-80; fragments 129-30), and Lucian, much later (Verne Historiae 
2.5—12), describe the landscape of the Underworld, which they had 
obviously never seen. 


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Odysseus is the hero most persistently associated with chang- 
ing landscapes, and it is not surprising that clusters of descriptions of 
localities, blending reality with fantasy, occur in the Odyssey, which is 
devoted to Odysseus’ adventurous journey back home. Here Homer 
masterfully describes notable landscapes: coasts, caves, groves, and gar- 
dens. He provides sufficient clarity to conjure up specific places (mostly 
around the Mediterranean) and sufficient fantastic detail to thwart 
the pursuit of identification. (In the Hellenistic period Apollonius of 
Rhodes’ Argonautica similarly resorted into geographical blends.) The 
scholarly interest in the Homeric geography of Odysseus’ adventures is 
long-standing and much contested. No one, however, can reasonably 
doubt the reality of Odysseus’ homeland of Ithaca. 


In Book 13 of the Odyssey Odysseus arrives home by ship with the help 
of the Phaeacians. The harbor, with its two protective promontories, 
has an olive tree at its head and a shaded well-watered cave nearby, 
sacred to the nymphs (13.96-112). Visited by both humans and deities 
from separate entrances, this is a cave where myth and reality converge. 
Actually, one of the Odyssey’s most unusual contexts is associated not 
with Odysseus but Menelaus, who also, though less famously, met dif- 
ficulties on his way back home to Sparta after the end of the Trojan 
War. One of Menelaus’ adventures was the encounter with Proteus, 
a creature capable of transforming himself into animals and elements, 
who held information on how to return home ( Odyssey 4.384 ff.) The 
land where Proteus lived exudes a familiar Mediterranean aura and is 
described in evocative detail: the rocky shore with its caves, the flow of 
the sea, the sun shining from above on a group of seals, whom Proteus 
joined in one of his spectacular transformations. 

Some of the Odyssey’s landscapes are idyllic and luxurious; some 
are threatening; and some are both. Nymph Calypso’s remote island of 
Ogygia, in which Odysseus was imprisoned, was simultaneously lovely 
and dangerous. Homer describes it on the occasion of Hermes’ arrival 
with the request that Calypso release Odysseus. Surrounded by beautiful 
blue waters, Calypso lived in a cave nested within a lush wood teaming 
with animal creatures of all sorts. This cave, its entrance covered with 
vine, was made into a comfortable home, complete with fragrant fire 
in the hearth, evocatively described ( Odyssey 5.55-74). The landscape 

3 1 2 

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Mythic Landscapes of Greece 

was invested with an emotional dimension, a sadness that insightfully 
contradicted the natural beauty. Odysseus could not experience the 
beauty when trapped against his will. 

For some reason Greek art did not give visual form to Calypso’s 
cave, but several votive reliefs of the late Classical period take the form of 
shallow caves, inhabited by unidentified nymphs and other deities. The 
nymphs were female water and landscape deities, and they inhabited a 
variety of landscapes, such as springs, groves, and meadows ( Iliad 20.8- 
9; Odyssey 6.123—24). Mountains and caves were especially important 
backdrops for their activities. In real life, caves were conceived of as 
possible sites of prophesy and healing, and many, both in Attica and in 
other locations, became loci of worship of the nymphs, their companion 
Pan, and other deities, especially in the Classical period. Visitors left 
offerings of pottery, terracotta figurines, clay plaques, marble reliefs, as 
well as various metal objects, decorative or utilitarian. 

Pan, a hybrid god of woods and caves from Arcadia, part goat part 
human, was worshipped in a cave on the north slope of the Athenian 
Acropolis, a site where nature and civilization coexisted in close prox- 
imity. Pan’s was one of several caves on the north slope. 9 (In Euripides’ 
tragedy Ion, 15-19, 936-9, 955-9, the eponymous baby was born and 
abandoned by his mother Creusa in Apollo’s grotto, whose precise rela- 
tion to that of Pan on the same slope is ambiguous.) Pan’s caves also 
dotted the Greek countryside. The Attic cave of Vari on Mt. Hymettus, 
used from the fifth century BCE to the middle of the second century 
CE and into late antiquity, is especially noteworthy. In the late fifth cen- 
tury BCE, Archedemus of Thera, whose name was inscribed six times 
in this cave and who was also depicted life-sized in crude relief, labored 
hard to create a garden for the pleasure of the nymphs, among other 
embellishments. 10 The cave was very complex, with both convention- 
ally beautiful areas and other less hospitable and more mysterious. 

There was also the Thessalian cave near Pharsalus - sanctuary to 
the nymphs, Pan, Hermes but also Apollo, Heracles, Cheiron, Ascle- 
pius, and Hygeia - whose remote locale was landscaped in the early fifth 
century BCE (or in the fourth) by Pantalces for easier access and also 
became a place of pilgrimage. Indeed, an inscription by the entrance 
informed visitors about this man’s actions and the rewards that the hon- 
ored deities offered him in return. It also exhorted passers-by to pay 
homage to the gods, make sacrifices, pray, and enjoy themselves, “for 
forgetfulness of all cares is here and your share of good things, and 
victory in strife.” 11 


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Vases of the Archaic and Classical period as well as late Classical 
votive reliefs pare complexity down and present us with highly stylized 
and flat visions of caves, shaped like irregular partial or complete arches, 
dominated by their mythical inhabitants. 12 Usually nymphs are shown 
walking or dancing in the company of Pan, Hermes, or Apollo. In 
Figure 13, a votive relief of ca. 330—320 BCE from the Peloponnese, 
three nymphs in voluminous mantles (other plural divinities such as the 
Horae have been invoked) dance in the direction of the goat-legged 
Pan, who sits on a rock and plays the pipes. 13 This is a landscape made 
strange by the fact that the women’s heads almost reach the ceiling of 
the shallow cave in typical expression of the figural prejudices of Greek 
art. On occasion, mortals, distinguished by their smaller size, intrude in 
Attic nymph reliefs, even holding hands and dancing with the nymphs, 
but generally it seems as if the mysterious nature of the cave made it 
suitable predominantly for supernatural beings. Dionysus, for instance, 
was reared by the nymphs of Mt. Nysa in a cave. Even though they 
offered worship there, the ancient Greeks thought of caves as fantastic, 
transgressive, and implausible surroundings for ordinary human life. 

Caves were not only mysterious but at times also uncivilized. In the 
Odyssey, the monstrous man-eating Cyclopes, on whose island Odysseus 
unhappily landed, lived individually in mountain caves: 

These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsels; 
rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed 
among the peaks of the high mountains, and each one is the law 
for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the 

( Odyssey 9.112-15, trans. R. Lattimore; 

cited in Plato’s Laws 3.680C) 

Although set in an idyllic land where nature bloomed effortlessly, 
Polyphemus’ cave was the site of the brutal killings of Odysseus’ com- 
panions, whom the Cyclops ate. Odysseus eventually escaped from this 
trap because of his cunning. Both the cunning and a version of the cave 
are captured on a fragment from a bowl dated ca. 650 BCE in the Argos 
Museum (Figure 14). 14 Odysseus and a companion drive a spear into 
the giant’s single eye. The rocky bed on which he lies localizes the story 
in a highly condensed and symbolic manner. As was typical of this early 
period and this medium, the style is sketchy and linear and eschews 
atmospheric effects. Yet the roughness and polychromy of the rock are 
communicated clearly. 


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Mythic Landscapes of Greece 

Countryside and Gender 

By contrast to Polyphemus’ world, the landscape of Phaeacia on the 
island of Scheria was both civilized and thoroughly pleasant. Ship- 
wrecked, naked, and exhausted, Odysseus washed up on its shores early 
in book six of the Odyssey. There he met Nausicaa, beautiful daughter 
of Alcinous and Arete, king and queen of the Phaeacians. She and her 
companions had gone to the river to wash clothes. As the clothes dried, 
they played ball (6.96-100) and awakened the sleeping Odysseus, who 
descended upon them “like a lion” and begged for food and shelter. 
Pausanias saw a panel painting depicting this encounter in the 
Pinakotheke (Picture Gallery) of the Propylaea on the Athenian Acrop- 
olis (1.22.6). Painted by Polygnotus, a fifth-century artist famous for his 
innovations in the depiction of space, it does not survive, but a couple 
of vases give us a glimpse into that world. 

One example is the lid of a red-figure pyxis in the Museum of 
Fine Arts, Boston (Figure 15). 15 Predictably, this is a world structured by 
the bodies that inhabit it, but a restrained and refined use of landscape 
creates a sense of environment. A bearded Odysseus, bent in a crouching 
pose, tries to hide his naked state - which in this case communicates 
vulnerability rather than heroic status — with a now indistinct branch. 
Nausicaa is shown calm, collected, and upright, placed diagonally across 
from Odysseus. Their bodies mark one of the imaginary diameters of the 
scene and are thus visually interlinked. Two companions of the girl flee 
expressively in fear, while a third, unaware of Odysseus’ appearance, 
continues to wring out clothes. All the girls are named. Diagonally 
across from the unsuspecting girl is the helmeted goddess Athena, whose 
imaginary presence guides Odysseus’ actions. Athena frames Odysseus 
on one side, while a skinny tree frames him on the other. At first sight, 
this leafy tree, whose existence simultaneously conjures up landscape and 
ornament, seems to be the only sign of locale. However, the addition of a 
pebbly ground line, highlighting the circumference of the lid with subtle 
naturalistic irregularities, articulates economically but clearly the river 
bank. It is carefully rendered in relief with the addition of bits of clay. 

Scholars have rightly discerned an aura of eroticism in the Home- 
ric encounter between the beautiful young maiden Nausicaa and the 
suppliant visitor, despite his ultimate ineligibility for marriage. Homer 
filled his narrative with hints that participate in the broader gender- 
ing of Greece’s mythical landscape. Unlike this one, mythical encoun- 
ters between men and women tend to be violent. They usually occur 
in nature, away from the protected urban environment that sheltered 


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women both in reality and in the mythic imagination. In literature, 
misty meadows with fresh grass and fragrant flowers are frequently the 
context in which erotic pursuits and rapes take place. Typically, beautiful 
and innocent maidens (heroines but sometimes even goddesses) gather 
flowers (whose patron was female, the goddess Chloris) and enjoy the 
glories of nature, when they are unexpectedly attacked by a male god 
or hero lusting after them. For instance, Boreas, the north wind, raped 
the maiden Oreithyia when she was dancing on the banks of the Ilissus 
River (Plato, Phaedrus 229B; Apollonius, Argonautica 1. 211—18). Apollo 
seized Creusa in a flowery meadow and raped her in a cave (Euripides, 
Ion 887-96). Poseidon raped Medusa (Hesiod, Theogony 278-9), and 
Zeus, in bovine form, abducted Europa (Moschus 63—71) in similarly 
beautiful landscapes. Pluto abducted Persephone while she was picking 
flowers in a dewy meadow, violently thrusting her into both sexuality 
and the landscape of the Underworld. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter 
mentions roses, crocuses, violets, hyacinths, narcissus, irises, and lilies 
(6-8; 425-8), but art was uninterested in the profusion of species. The 
message overall seems to be that, despite the enticing attractions that 
nature holds for girls, danger lurks around the corner. 

A fragment from an Attic red-figure column-krater of ca. 470—460 
BCE in Boston is difficult to situate within a broader narrative frame- 
work but excellently conveys a sense of carefree and idyllic integration 
of girls in nature. 16 It shows two young women on a seesaw, consisting 
of a plank resting on a boulder. One girl (on the left) has her weight 
on the plank, while the other (whose head is lost) is shown jumping in 
midair, about to land on the plank. A wonderfully drawn fruit tree in 
the background suggests the countryside. We do not know who these 
girls are, though the frieze of winged horses near the hem of the one 
on the left suggests they are special. We also do not know whether they 
belong to the realm of myth, although the sharp division we now tend 
to draw between genre and mythology may not have been so stark in 
antiquity. These girls help us recall the romanticism of passages in lyric 
poetry as well as tragedy, where love, femininity, and nature are drawn 
together. In their suggestively fragmentary state they also help us recall 
the world of the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, who in the 
visual arts is often surrounded by landscape elements and sits close to 
the ground. 

Nature and nature’s gardens were symbols of virginity and erotic 
meeting places, but they could also be places of agrarian productivity. 
After meeting Nausicaa and receiving clues that Phaeacia was indeed 
a hospitable place, Odysseus proceeded to Alcinous’ palace. Prior to 


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entering, he stopped to admire its orchard, vineyard, and vegetable 
garden, all productive, in bloom, carefully taken care of, and lovingly 
described ( Odyssey 7.1 12— 31). Art did not engage with such expansive 
vistas, but the mythical Garden of the Hesperides did receive visual 
attention. It was there, near the Atlas mountains, that the goddess Hera 
had planted the tree of immortality, which bore golden apples. Hesiod 
tells us that other species of fruit-bearing trees also grew in this magical 
garden, and they were all guarded by the Hesperides (Hesiod, Theogony 
215—16). The place was so lovely that Zeus and Hera made love for the 
first time there, as Euripides ( Hippolytus 748-51) implies. 

The Garden of the Hesperides is shown on the lower register of 
a well-known red-figure hydria by the Meidias Painter in the British 
Museum, dated to the end of the fifth century BCE (Figure 16). 17 The 
apple tree is shown roughly in the middle of the composition with a 
guardian serpent wrapped around it. It is surrounded by a group of 
very elegant Hesperides, all labeled. Two Hesperides are shown to the 
left of the sacred tree. One of them, labeled Chrysothemis, reaches 
for one of the apples. The other, Asterope, is behind Chrysothemis 
and leans forward on her shoulder. On the other side of the tree, the 
Hesperis Lipara looks toward Heracles. Heracles, for whom fetching 
the apples was one of his twelve labors, is easily identifiable by the lion 
skin on which he sits and the club he holds with his right hand. He is 
accompanied by his henchman Iolaus, who stands behind him holding 
two spears. Clytius and Hygeia are shown on the far left; she sits, while 
he stands, leaning forward on rocky ground. Two other trees punctuate 
this landscape, one behind Clytius and one between Lipara and Heracles. 
Additional figures, including one more Hesperis, are revealed as one 
turns the vase, without contributing any additional dimensions to the 
garden aspect. 

The main scene lacks a sense of narrative and danger, with Heracles 
avoiding any exertion and waiting for the Hesperides to give him the 
apples. This lack of action heightens the pictorial significance of the 
garden, and the idyllic nature of the setting is made palpable despite its 
restrained visual expression. This particular painter and his circle loved 
to set their figures in gardens, marked by trees, shrubs, flowers, and rocks. 
Put together, the extremely elegant Meidian figures and their meadowy 
paradisiacal environments paint a carefree and luxurious world inhabited 
by gods and heroes. Even the scene of the abduction of the Leucippides 
from a sanctuary punctuated by a stiffly posed female statue, which is 
the main scene on this hydria, has an idyllic aura conferred on it by 
the occasional delicate tree, flowery tendril, and wavy ground line. The 


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goddess Aphrodite, associated with gardens and flowery meadows, sits 
gracefully next to an altar in the frieze below the abduction scene. 

The Underworld 

The Greek imagination located the Garden of the Hesperides on 
the edge of the earth. Another edge, albeit much less pleasant, was 
the Underworld, to which the Greeks devoted compelling attention. 
Homer’s Underworld was lush in vegetation but also dark and foggy, 
a dreary place for all its inhabitants, however excellent and heroic. In 
book ii of the Odyssey, Odysseus, following the directions of Circe, 
traveled by ship and then on foot to that dark, gloomy, and watery spot, 
marked by a grove of poplars and willows, at the junction of two rivers 
(see Odyssey 10.508—15). There he sought information from the soul of 
the soothsayer Tiresias about how to return home. Although there is 
nothing specifically otherworldly about these landscape elements, the 
Odyssey describes them in such a way as to arouse fear and dread. The 
discussion of the dead, who cannot communicate with Odysseus unless 
they drink sacrificial blood, contributes in no small measure to this 

Dated ca. 440 BCE, a pelike in Boston by the Lykaon Painter 
depicts the visit to the land of the dead (Figure 17). 18 The bearded 
figure of Odysseus, equipped with boots and with traveling hat on his 
back, sits on a rock in the middle of the composition, his right hand 
brought to his chin in a mournful, somber pose suitable to the context. 
He holds a sword with the other hand and seems to have performed a 
sacrifice of the two bloody sheep that are placed by his feet. The story 
demanded that he perform such a sacrifice in order to draw out the 
souls of the dead and enable them to speak to him. On the right stands 
Hermes, with winged hat and shoes, holding his herald’s staff in his 
left hand. On the left, facing the other two figures, emerges one of the 
dead, Elpenor, a nude and youthful beardless man. His legs are partly 
obscured by the hilly environment, and his arms convey the effort he 
makes as he climbs up from the underground. Elpenor, one of Odysseus’ 
companions, died in an accident on Circe’s island and his body was left 
unattended by his comrades in their hasty departure. Here he appears 
to Odysseus to ask for cremation, a proper burial, and a tomb marker. 

This is a rocky landscape, as suggested by its painted wavy lines 
indicative of different layers of space. It is also a marshy spot, marked by 
the reeds of a riverine environment. The use of multiple ground lines, 


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Mythic Landscapes of Greece 

the distribution of figures at various levels on the pictorial surface, and 
their partial concealment behind landscape elements, such as the hill that 
partially hides Elpenor here, participate in a mode of depicting space 
that scholars call “Polygnotan.” Its invention has been attributed to the 
painter Polygnotus of Thasos, who famously employed it in his now-lost 
wall paintings of ca. 470—460 BCE at the Treasury of the Cnidians at 
Delphi. His painting of the Underworld was described in minute detail 
by Pausanias in the second century CE (10.25 .1-31 . 12), and it included 
Odysseus as well as the marshy environment of the River Acheron 
with Charon’s boat. Figures placed on a higher elevation were meant to 
occupy some space in the distance; those at lower levels were meant to 
be progressively closer to the viewer. 19 Polygnotus’ painting contained 
many more figures (roughly seventy human and animal figures) and 
activities than a vase painting can possibly include, but Figure 17 may 
be used to conjure up something about that lost work, at least its spatial 
tendencies and somber effect. 

Light and misty darkness are two environments that Greek vase 
painting - with its emphasis on crisp outlines, its restrained colors, and 
their dense application — cannot readily depict. The Lykaon Painter goes 
farther than usual in providing visual clues for the Underworld’s environ- 
ment. Even so, the illusion of space in the vase painting is counteracted 
by the palmette motifs that frame the scene and ultimately proclaim this 
to be a decorative surface. Furthermore, Elpenor, Odysseus, and Her- 
mes inhabit different levels of reality. Odysseus is a mortal hero whose 
mythological status allows journeys impossible for ordinary humans 
(here to the Underworld and back); Hermes occupies an imaginary 
divine landscape; Elpenor, despite his substantive corporeality and the 
naturalistic fusion with his environment, is meant to be an eidolon, a 
ghost or apparition, and thus he exists less in a real than in a notional 

It is unclear whether Polygnotus’ painting went farther in the 
depiction of the Underworld’s misty atmosphere. Certainly his medium 
would have allowed him to do so, but the study of Greek landscape 
underscores the unpredictability of artistic expression. Certainly both 
the large-scale painting, as transmitted to us by Pausanias, and the Boston 
pelike seem to have been inspired by the Homeric description of the 
Underworld. Other conceptions of the world of the dead and the jour- 
ney by which that place was reached also existed, not least because 
no perfect agreement is possible when the subject is beyond empirical 
knowledge. Constant references occur in Greek tragedy, while Aristo- 
phanes’ Frogs, the texts of the so-called Orphic gold tablets, which 


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accompanied a few burials from the fifth century BCE to the third 
century CE, and to some extent Plato’s Pliaedo present their own con- 
ceptions and rearrange standard landscape features such as springs, lakes, 
and trees that mark the route. Hesiod knew the Underworld as a dreary 
place for the masses, but he also imagined another much more pleas- 
ant locale, the Islands of the Blessed, exclusive to heroes, where they 
lived by the Ocean in eternal heavenly comfort in an ever-productive 
environment ( Works and Days 170—73). Pindar made that place acces- 
sible to the average dead, if good, just, and noble (e.g., Olympian, 
2.63-80; fragment 129). 20 The breezy landscape of the Islands of the 
Blessed (or Elysian Fields) was characterized by sunshine, flowery mead- 
ows, verdant woods, and flowing waters. Lucian imagined the Elysian 
Fields as an idyllic sunny place in full bloom, full of aromas and gentle 
breezes, a fabulous city in perpetual spring (Verne Historiae 2.6-13). The 
Garden of the Hesperides discussed above (Figure 16) helps us visu- 
alize the Islands of the Blessed (to which the Garden was conceptually 
related) . 

One of the most unusual visual renderings of the realm of the dead 
occurs on the interior of an Athenian white-ground cup in the British 
Museum attributed to the Sotades Painter. The cup dates to ca. 470- 
460 BCE and was reportedly one of nine white-ground vases found 
in the same woman’s tomb in Athens. 21 It does not give an expansive 
view of the Underworld but rather zooms into the interior of a single 
tomb. The story is rare and concerns the encounter of the Athenian seer 
Polyidus with Glaucus in the latter’s tomb (Apollodorus, Library 3.3.1; 
Hyginus, Fabulae 136). Glaucus, son of Minos, had drowned in a pot of 
honey, and Minos locked Polyidus up in the tomb and charged him with 
the task of reviving the boy. Polyidus succeeded after seeing a snake that 
he had killed be revived by its mate. This is a quiet and contemplative 
rendering of boy and seer, both of whom are named. Glaucus is shown 
in a crouching position on the right, all covered up in his dark clothing, 
as if alive. Polyidus is shown half-nude in a kneeling position, holding 
a stick, apparently a weapon against the snakes. Both figures are fully 
absorbed in the seer’s activity. The tomb has a beehive shape, whose 
outline is faintly preserved and is shown in section. Above it stands 
a tripod, while the ground of the tomb is marked by naturalistically 
textured pebbles, tiny spots of clay that support the main figures. The 
two snakes, which signal the method by which Glaucus was revived, 
are placed below this pebbly layer near the rim of the cup. 

This combination of a natural and a human-made funereal envi- 
ronment is quite extraordinary for Greek art, as is the spaciousness of 


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the tomb’s interior. Its manner of enclosing the figures is wonderfully 
encompassing and atmospheric, despite the fact that there is no con- 
sistency of perspective and the spatial relation of snakes and humans 
is unclear. The beauty of drawing and the delicate visual effects that 
characterize this scene are shared by this vase’s companion pieces, espe- 
cially another white-ground cup, also from the workshop of the Sotades 
Painter, which shows a young woman stretching on tiptoe to reach the 
highest fruit on a slender apple tree. Another woman, poorly preserved 
and labeled Melissa, crouches by the tree, perhaps picking up fallen 
apples. 22 The identity of the story represented is unclear, but scholars 
conjecture that the women are nymphs in the Garden of the Hesperides, 
which, as we saw, forced artists to think about nature, however imagi- 
nary and fabulous, as a context of mythic action. 

Mountains, Trees, and Bodies of Water 

Collectively, the incomplete and scattered bits of evidence we possess 
might be taken to suggest that the effort to imagine other worlds — 
the worlds in which gods, heroes and the mythical dead existed and 
moved — produced an attendant effort to give visual form to the land- 
scapes in which those movements occurred. The landscapes seem to 
have abstractly fused experiences of Greece’s real environments with 
mental images. Sometimes the result of this process seems self-evident; 
other times it seems surprising in both its inclusions and its exclu- 
sions. Mountains, for example, although they were the location of 
important mythical events, were not represented often. This is sur- 
prising, for mountains can easily be shaped into image. In myth they 
were mysterious and dangerous places, often inhabited by outsiders to 
civilization. 23 There hunters pursued wild animals; maenads roamed, 
and frenzied Theban women, turned into maenads, tore Pentheus apart; 
infants were exposed, but also found and reared by strangers. Laius gave 
infant Oedipus for exposure in a meadow of Hera on Mt. Cithaeron 
(Euripides, Phoenissae 24). Occasionally mountains were idyllic, such as 
Mt. Ida in Mysia, where the Trojan prince Paris herded and where he 
delivered his famous Judgment. The most famous, Mt. Olympus, was 
a serene and blissful environment with perfect weather, home of the 
gods ( Odyssey 6.41-5). For real Greeks, mountains were places where 
one could worship the gods and might even “meet” them. But artists 
opted for caves, which go together with mountains, or simply for rocky 


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Depictions of landscape tend to cluster around mythical stories 
more than the “genre” scenes of everyday life. It is possible, how- 
ever, for the real and the mythological to inhabit the same spaces. 
Some Athenian white-ground lekythoi of the fifth century BCE show 
Charon, ferryman of the dead, leading a figure to the Underworld across 
the River Acheron. White-ground lekythoi, like white-ground cups, 
formed a circumscribed group explicitly associated with death. In the 
so-called Charon scenes the references to the Underworld are explicit. 
The expressive means are calm but infused with sadness. The child on 
a lekythos of ca. 430 BCE in the National Archaeological Museum 
in Athens must be an ordinary mortal boy. Charon has placed him in 
his boat in a swampy landscape by a rocky shore, communicated with 
striking naturalism because of the medium’s polychromous effects. The 
boy turns to look at his mournful parents, who stay behind and must 
relinquish their child to the company of the otherworldly figure of 
Charon. 24 When Charon accompanies an adult, it is not always possi- 
ble to know whether the figure is “real” or a mythological character, a 
generic woman or Alcestis dying for the sake of her husband. 

Sometimes determining the status of entire scenes is problematical. 
Take, for example, a black-figure panel amphora of ca. 515-500 BCE 
by the Priam Painter in the Villa Giulia in Rome. One side shows an 
extremely unusual atmospheric scene with strong depth of field, where 
seven nude women bathe and swim in a rocky grotto. The scene is 
framed by two multibranched trees, from which clothing and equipment 
hang. Even the slightly wavy and glistening water is depicted, and one 
swimmer’s body is partly covered by it in unexpected illusionism. The 
painter has rendered her in perspectival diminution to suggest that she 
is farther away from the foreground plane than others. Roughly in 
the middle of the composition there is a structure, apparently a diving 
platform. Are these “real” women or are they nymphs? One cannot be 
sure, but the latter seems more likely. It is reasonable to assume some 
correspondence in level of reality with the vase’s other side, which is 
firmly set in the world of myth. Here the majestic figure of Dionysus sits 
in profile on a diphros (a stool), with cup in hand. 25 He is surrounded 
by luxuriant vines, heavy with grapes, on which seven satyrs climb 
energetically in order to pick them. Large baskets on the ground receive 
the fruit. This side is flatter in effect than the grotto on the other, but 
it too offers an encompassing landscape view. Still, the bodies carry the 
scene, as the body does even in a famous diving scene often invoked 
in association with this amphora. That scene is depicted on the lid of 
the early classical Tomb of the Diver in the Greek city of Paestum in 


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Mythic Landscapes of Greece 

southern Italy (500—480 BCE). An agile nude man jumps off from a 
masonry platform into a shallow body of water below, in a landscape 
also punctuated by two spindly trees. 26 

A tree might indicate a generic outdoor setting, but in the past 
it may have pointed to something more specific. In art there are a 
variety of tree shapes, whose species is sometimes identifiable. 27 Among 
the easiest to identify is — not surprising for the Mediterranean — the 
olive tree, which had both economic and symbolic value, given its 
association with Athena, patron goddess of Athens. In all periods, despite 
the recognizability, there is a strong degree of stylization and little effort 
put in the transmission of precise botanical facts. The frequency of the 
depictions of the god Dionysus entails an attendant profusion of vine 
motifs in vase painting. 

Although it is not a typical Greek plant (Theophrastus, Historia 
Plantarum 3.3.5), the palm tree occurs in Greek art more often than one 
would expect, in intriguing combinations of naturalism and abstraction. 
Sometimes its presence makes good sense as a sign of location, as in the 
case of Troy. In that case palms might serve to underscore a distant 
exotic place. On other occasions, as in the struggle between Heracles 
and Apollo over the Delphic tripod, such explanations are difficult to 
carry through. But the majestic palm tree was persistently associated 
with Apollo, whose mother Leto clung to such a tree on Delos while 
giving birth to him in a soft meadow ( Homeric Hymn to Apollo 116- 
17), and with his twin sister Artemis. Palms appear in scenes showing 
Achilles and Ajax playing dice, a prominent example being a late sixth- 
century-BCE black-figure calyx krater by the Rycroft Painter in the 
Toledo Museum of Art, where each hero has a palm tree behind him in 
a symmetrical arrangement. 28 Scholars have proposed that the number 
of branches assigned to each tree may have been used symbolically to 
signal which side would win. 

Archaic painters paired Ajax with the palm also in depictions of 
his suicide. The hero resorted to suicide in a frenzy of anger after his 
comrades voted to award Achilles’ armor to Odysseus rather than to 
him. In Sophocles’ play by that name, which seems unusually to have 
depicted the suicide on stage, Ajax took his life in an isolated spot 
by the beach. His last words address the landscape of Troy directly: 
“Springs, rivers, and the wide plain of Troy — you have all sustained 
me. Farewell! Aias calls out his last word to you” (Ajax 862-4, trans. 
H. Golder and R. Pevear). The Archaic vase painter Exekias reduced 
all landscape to a single palm tree on a famous black-figure amphora 
dated ca. 540 BCE and today in Boulogne (Figure 18). The silhouette 


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of the tree, with its memorably drooping branches, frames Ajax’ nude 
body from one side. On the other side we see his armor: shield with 
apotropaic Medusa, spear, and helmet (unless these are symbolic of the 
cause behind his imminent suicide, and thus allude to Achilles’ armor). 
The palm has been considered by some scholars a sign of foreign setting 
but has been read by others symbolically, as an emotional participant 
in the hero’s death or as a means of suggesting his elevated status. 29 
In all interpretations the tree serves to enhance aspects of the pictorial 
narrative. A well-known red-figure hydria by the Kleophrades painter 
in Naples, dated ca. 490-480 BCE, features a similarly expressive palm 
tree. 30 The context is the fall of Troy, and a distraught woman pulling 
her hair sits by the tree, whose leafy branches curve towards her. On 
the tree’s other side sits the hapless Trojan king Priam, victim - together 
with his dead grandson — of Neoptolemus’ brutal attack. This tree too, 
bent and mournful, sympathetically participates in the human suffering 
as an example of the so-called pathetic fallacy, 31 whereby nature reflects 
human emotions, but it has also been interpreted neutrally as a simple 
signal of location. 

Figure and Landscape - Figure 
as Landscape 

In Figure 18, the stark geometry in the juxtaposition of Ajax’ body and 
the tree, which echoes the curvature of his body, suggests a fundamental 
correspondence between the human figure and landscape elements. So 
far we have set the depiction of landscape and Greek culture’s funda- 
mental anthropomorphism in some sort of opposition. But it is also 
striking that the visual arts treat bodies and landscape features in similar 
ways. In all periods there is an emphasis on clear contour, a preference 
for complete views without too much overlapping of forms, and an aura 
of self-sufficient poise. Even when rendered in flat style, both human 
and landscape forms exude a sculptural effect. (White-ground vases of 
the classical period and monumental wall painting, which is largely lost, 
allowed more atmospheric renderings.) It turns out that Greek litera- 
ture is punctuated by references implying the correspondence between 
human and landscape bodies. When Odysseus encountered Nausicaa 
in the scene discussed above, he compared her enthralling beauty to 
a young palm tree (phoenix), the specific one that he had once seen 
beside Apollo’s altar on the island of Delos ( Odyssey 6.162-3). Set up 
in this juxtaposition, girl and tree become analogous bodies. Centuries 

3 2 4 

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Mythic Landscapes of Greece 

later the Hellenistic poet Theocritus compared Helen’s radiant beauty 
to a magnificent cypress tree ( Idylls , 18.29—30). She adorned her home- 
land Sparta just as the tree adorns a garden or field. Much less pleasantly 
but equally significantly, the Iliad compares young Euphorbus, fallen in 
battle, to an olive tree fallen in a storm (17.53—9). Aristophanes com- 
pared the tough old woodsmen of the chorus in Acharnians to maple and 
prickly oak (178— 85) . And in the Odyssey the monstrous solitary Cyclops 
is compared to “a wooded peak of the high mountains seen standing 
away from the others” (9.190—92, trans. R. Lattimore). Landscape has 
personality. If tree and person can be analogous, the whole humankind 
may be envisaged in terms of vegetation as part of a philosophically 
inclined conceptual leap: 

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity. 

The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber 
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning 
So one generation of men will grow while another dies. 

(Iliad 6.146-9, trans. R. Lattimore) 

The employment of such metaphorical values in literature suggests 
a keen awareness of the symbiosis between humans and the landscape 
that frames their actions, and this is evident also in Greek philosophy. 
In the fourth century BCE, the relation between place (topos) and 
the bodies that inhabit it attracted Aristotle’s attention in the fourth 
book of his Physics. His search for a definition of place resulted in a 
highly complex and somewhat contradictory analysis, which has taxed 
scholarship. It is clear, however, that Aristotle believed in the intimate 
interdependence of place and the bodies that inhabit it; one begins 
where the contours of the other end. Furthermore, he regarded place 
as something finite. 

Landscape as Figure 

We may discern a concern with the finite in the employment of per- 
sonification to suggest landscape. Book 21 of the Iliad is a wonderful 
exploration of thought process and mental imaging. It shuttles back and 
forth between the watery landscape properties of the River Xanthus/ 
Scamander and a humanized/deified conception that allows the river 
to confront Achilles and express his outrage at the heap of Trojan bod- 
ies that the Greek hero dumps into his waters. In book 20 Scamander 


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stands against the god Hephaestus in the battle ranks (20.73-4; 2I -365~ 
84). Many centuries after Homer, Philostratus’ ekphrasis on Scamander, 
making explicit reference to the Iliad, described a painting that included 
the personified Trojan river fighting against Hephaestus (Imagines 1 . 1 . 1) . 
The Hellenistic poet Callimachus in his Hymn to Delos described the 
island as if it were a female swimmer. 

There is an island on the water, shining, 

slender, roaming the waves. Her feet have yet 

to touch the ground. She floats 

on the current like a stem of asphodel, winds 

from south and winds from east 

blowing her hither and thither, and the sea 

sweeps her where he wishes. 

(191-4, trans. F. Nisetich) 

Among landscape elements, it was rivers and springs that most 
often became mythological characters, even deities. Rivers were typ- 
ically gendered male and springs female. The great River Achelous 
in Acarnania in western Greece, who wrestled with Heracles for the 
hand of Deianeira (Sophocles, Trachiniae 507-30), was animated in var- 
ious animal and human guises in literature and was usually rendered 
as a bull with a human face in art. His bearded human face emerges 
abruptly in profile from the chiseled ground of a votive relief from 
the richly outfitted cave at Vari previously mentioned. 32 Today in the 
Archaeological Museum in Athens and dated ca. 320 BCE, the relief is 
shaped in the form of a cave’s entrance, similar to that of Figure 13 . One 
female figure sits against the left wall of the cave, and Achelous’ bearded 
head emerges in profile next to her rocky seat. Above her head the 
god Pan is shown in low relief. Another seated figure delineates the 
cave’s right wall, with a hunter and dog rendered in relief above. A 
third woman stands in the middle, facing the viewer and resting with 
one hand against the cave’s ceiling. Socrates knew Achelous to be the 
father of the nymphs (Plato, Phaedrus 263D; cf. Iliad 24.616), though 
others cited a different parentage, and it is most likely that the three 
women are nymphs. Achelous’ head is the only one still preserved in 
this composition. 

The River Cephissus was shown as a bearded man with bull’s horns 
leading three nymphs on one of the two sides of a late fifth-century BCE 
Attic relief in the Archaeological Museum in Athens, 33 while the figure 
on the north corner of the Parthenon’s west pediment is often identified 


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Mythic Landscapes of Greece 

as Cephissus or Ilissus in human form. Alpheius and Cladeus reclined 
on the east pediment of the early Classical temple of Zeus at Olympia, 
where Pausanias identified them (5.10.7), though not to every scholar’s 

Concluding Remarks 

Personification brings us full circle back to ancient Greek art’s most 
prominent characteristic in all periods, its anthropocentrism. It is dif- 
ficult to overestimate the importance of the human body as primary 
carrier of identity and narrative meaning. The Greek mythological land- 
scape was fundamentally a bodyscape. Whether conveyed naturalistically 
or metaphorically, the motifs of nature served primarily to frame human 
actions and movements, as recent research has reaffirmed. This aspect of 
the mythical tradition seems to have been resistant to social and historical 
change over time, even though the engagement with nature intensified 
in the course of the Classical and, especially, in the Hellenistic period. 
Dated to the middle of the second century BCE and today in Berlin, the 
Hellenistic Telephus frieze from the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, which 
narrated this hero’s life story, depicts numerous geographical notations. 
It includes recognizable species of trees such as plane and oak, but its 
focus remains the narrative that the figures enact. 34 Landscape is not 
rendered as an expansive luxurious whole but as a stark collection of 
individual features in close-up. 

Generally, in Greek art, there is little by way ofblue skies and green 
vegetation, lofty distant mountains, expansive lakes and seas, or mean- 
dering rivers. But so much more was accessible through the imagination. 
The crisply demarcated and stylized forms of bodies and landscape ele- 
ments do not speak of dreamy romanticism, but solitary forms could 
act as signals for the imagination to roam in dreamy places. This surely 
amounts to a rich and viable conception of landscape. Vision and imagi- 
nation, real life and mythology worked in synergy, as in the conversation 
between Phaedrus and Socrates on the banks of the Ilissus mentioned 
above. Their search for a beautiful spot in which to read occasioned an 
unexpectedly detailed and experiential description of place, as well as 
the impression that this real place was marked forever by the presence 
of the mythical Boreas and Oreithyia. In typical philosophically rational 
mode, Phaedrus and Socrates questioned the reality of this myth, but in 
the end they were unwilling to dispense with customary belief. When, 
centuries later, Pausanias, who was much less philosophically inclined, 


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combed the Greek landscape, he too was able to experience myth and 
reality simultaneously, tangible landscape elements together with imag- 
inary deities resident within them, even though he often questioned 
the veracity of his sources. Both the longevity of mythical traditions 
and the fact that Greece’s physical landscape changed rather slowly over 
time allowed Pausanias to experience and record a sense of continuity 
with the past as he traced the location of springs, caves, mountains, and 
also cities and sanctuaries. 

The literary aesthetic and the visual aesthetic of Greece were 
highly eclectic, and landscape was a flickering phenomenon that can 
be traced discontinuously through the course of antiquity. Not sur- 
prisingly, art and literature did not select the same features to engage 
with and describe. At the same time that they subscribed to broad cul- 
tural ideals, individual artists manipulated the mythical landscapes for 
expressive purposes and took their viewers to new territories. When 
they felt the need, such individuals could locate their culture’s anthro- 
pomorphism and the narrative requirements at hand within expansive 
spatial frameworks. Their works coexist with countless others — from 
the Geometric to the Hellenistic period — that insist on completely 
blank, undifferentiated backgrounds. In all cases artists took for granted 
their audiences’ deep familiarity with the Greek landscape and asked the 
imagination to fill the voids. This situation is in the end not so different 
from that of mythical discourse itself, whose multiple versions were the 
result of traditions colliding with individual tellers’ points of view and 

Further Reading 

As the present volume makes abundantly clear, the bibliography on 
ancient Greek myth is immense. Among works on myth, Buxton 
1994 and 2004 are especially sensitive to matters of Greece’s landscape. 
Osborne 1987 and Rackham 1990 highlight Greece’s physical landscape 
and the uses in which it was put, while Luce 1998 explores the physical 
aspects of key Homeric locations. Cole 2004 engages with the inter- 
section of gender, landscape, and ritual space from the perspective of 
textual and physical evidence. The essays in Alcock et al. 2001 discuss 
Pausanias, who in the second century CE selectively recorded aspects of 
the mythical and sacred landscape of Greece. Given the discontinuous 
nature of its evidence, the visual representation of landscape is a prob- 
lematical topic, quite difficult to synthesize. The relevant scholarship is 


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dispersed and carried out in various languages. Especially helpful among 
English publications are Hurwit 1991, which surveys the depiction of 
natural features and charts intersections with early Greek literature, and 
Hedreen 2001, which pays special attention to the narrative roles of 
landscape elements in images of the Trojan War. Both are concerned 
with the Archaic and early Classical periods and focus on the contri- 
bution of vase painting. Hurwit 1982 (with Madden 1983) raises the 
question of the emotive implications of landscape elements. Carroll- 
Spillecke 1985 surveys the evidence from relief sculpture, while Cohen 
2001 studies aspects of myth and landscape in the Hellenistic period. 
It was once customary to study landscape in Greek art in light of the 
much more profusely documented genre of Roman mythological land- 
scape painting. The hypothesis that the latter copied or variously echoed 
Hellenistic Greek precedents is no longer favored by scholars. Earlier 
scholarship, however, such as Schefold i960 and von Blanckenhagen 
1963 (together with Dawson 1944, which studies landscape as a dis- 
tinctly Roman invention), is still valuable to the student of ancient 
Greek mythological landscapes. Clark 1947, Mitchell 1984, Hirsch and 
O’Hanlon 1995, and Roskill 1997 explore theoretical issues that the 
landscape genre raises. 


1 Plato, Phaedrus 230D; Parry 1957, 3; Pattichis 2001; Roger 2001. 

2 For discussion of various aspects of the landscape genre, see Gardner 1988; Pochat 
1973, I 7 ~ 395 Elliger 1975; Borchhardt 1980; Carroll-Spillecke 1985; Wegener 
1985; Siebert 1996, 7—10; Rouveret 1989, 318—36; Hurwit 1991; Schnapp 1994— 
95; Roger 1995; Halm-Tisserant 1999; Hedreen 2001; Venit 2002, 85—90, 101— 18; 
Riihfel 2003 ; Rouveret 2004; Cohen 2005; Doukellis 2005. See Andronikos 1984, 
102—19 on a nonmythological wall painting from the second half of the fourth cen- 
tury BCE whose depiction of landscape is unusually expansive. 

3 Halperin 1983 distinguishes bucolic from pastoral poetry and considers Theocritus 
the originator of only the former; see Phinney 1967 and Williams 1991 on Apol- 
lonius Rhodius; Nishimura-Jensen 2000 on Apollonius and Callimachus; Parry 
1957, x 5 on Plato as the originator of a pastoral attitude to be elaborated in the 
Hellenistic period. Thesleff 1981 discusses early occurrences of the locus amoenus 
(“lovely place”) in Greek poetry, going back to Homer. 

4 Morgan 1988, 121—42; Doumas 1992, pis. 35—48; Televantou 1994, esp. 95—9, 
114-15, 264-74, 295-307, 309-38. 

5 Warren 1979; Morris 1989; critique in Farnoux 1996, 28—30. 

6 von Blanckenhagen 1963; Biering 1995. 

7 Ferrari forthcoming. 

8 See Hedreen 2001 in connection with narratives of the Trojan War (91— 119 on 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

9 See Siebert 1990, 153 for others. On Pan’s attributes and natural domain, see the 
Homeric Hymn to Pan ; Borgeaud 1988. 

10 Weller et al. 1903; Connor 1988; Borgeaud 1995; Larson 2001, 14—19, 242—5, fig. 
5.9; Schorner and Goette 2004, 16-30, pi. n. 

11 Connor 1988, 163. 

12 See Siebert 1990 for representative examples on vases. He notes that Archaic vases 
tend to show caves in profile views, while Classical vases usually opt for frontahty; 
see Carroll- Spillecke 1985, 56—61 on reliefs. 

13 Athens, National Archaeological Museum, 1449; Kaltsas 2002, 219 (Cat. No. 454). 

14 Argos Museum, C149; Hurwit 1991, 43, 45, fig. 10. 

15 Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 04.18; attributed to Aison; Shapiro 1995, 158-79, 
fig. 27. 

16 Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, io.i9ia-b; attributed to the Leningrad Painter. 
See Neils and Oakley 2003, 274 (Cat. No. 82) with bibliography. On the literary 
theme of girls in nature, see Bremer 1975. 

17 London, British Museum, E224; Burn 1987, 15—25. 

18 Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 34.79; Giesecke 1999; Riihfel 2003, 106, fig. 65. 

19 See Stansbury-O’Donnell 1990 for a reconstruction. 

20 On literary visions of the Underworld, see Cole 2003; Edmonds 2004. 

21 London, British Museum, D5; Burn 1985, 93, 94, 101— 5, figs. 23.1, 24.2; Hoff- 
mann 1997, 120—126, figs. 66—9. 

22 London, British Museum, D6, ca. 460—450 BCE; Burn 1985, 94—5, fig. 23.2; 
Riihfel 2003, 100— 102, fig. 61. 

23 On mountains in Greek literature, see Hyde 1915—16; Buxton 1992 and 1994, 

24 Athens, National Archaeological Museum, 16463. See Oakley 2004, 123, fig. 86; 
113—25 generally on Charon scenes. 

25 Rome, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, 2609; Borchhardt 1980, 259— 
60, pi. 55.1; Moon 1983, no— 13, fig. 7.19a— c (scene with nymphs), fig. 7.18a— c 
(Dionysus); Moon 1985, 63, fig. 18a— b; Hurwit 1991, 40—42, fig. 5; Riihfel 2003, 
66-7, fig. 39. 

26 Borchhardt 1980, 260-61, fig. 1; Hurwit 1991, 36, 39, 40, fig. 3. 

27 Riihfel 2003 for extended discussion. Oil the significance of trees, see also Davies 
1988 and Birge 1994. 

28 Toledo Museum of Art, 63.26; Moon 1985, 47, 61—2, fig. 11a; Hurwit 1991, 42—3, 
fig. 8. 

29 Boulogne, Chateau-Musee, 558; Hurwit 1991, 51, 52, fig. 23; Hedreen 2001, 102, 
112, 117-19, fig. 27; Riihfel 2003, 80-82, fig. 48. 

30 Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, H 2422 (81669); Hurwit 1991, 51, 52, 
fig. 24; Hedreen 2001, 64-8, 77, fig. 3a— b. 

31 Hurwit 1982; Fowler 1989, 104—9. 

32 Athens, National Archaeological Museum, 2012; Kaltsas 2002, 218 (Cat. No. 452); 
Schorner and Goette 2004, 71—4, pi. 42.1. Generally on rivers and river iconog- 
raphy, see Gais 1978; Klementa 1993; Brewster 1997. On springs, see Hill 1964; 
on personification, Webster 1954. 

33 Athens, National Archaeological Museum, 1783; Kaltsas 2002, 134 (Cat. No. 258). 

34 Cohen 2001, 98-100. 


Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 3. Deeds of Theseus. Attic red-figure cup attributed to the Codrus Painter 
from Vulci, ca. 430 BC. London, British Museum E 84. (Photo: Courtesy of the 
Trustees of the British Museum.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 4. Tyrannicides. Casts of Roman marble copies after bronze originals by 
Kritios and Nesiotes, ca. 477—476 BC. (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

Image removed for rights reasons 

figure 12. Naval Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera. Detail. Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Phira. Ca. 1650—1600 BCE. (Photograph courtesy of 
the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

Image removed for rights reasons 

figure 13. Nymphs and Pan. Marble votive relief from Sparta or Megalopolis. 
Athens, National Archaeological Museum, 1449. Ca. 330—320 BCE. (Photograph 
courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.) 

Image removed for rights reasons 

figure 14. The Blinding of Polyphemus. Fragment from a vase. Argos Museum, 
C149. Ca. 650 BCE. (Photograph: Ecole Francaise d’Athenes, E. Serafis.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 15. Meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa. Lid of a red-figure pyxis attributed 
to Aison. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Henry Lillie Pierce Fund, 04.18a— b. Ca. 
420 BCE. (Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) 

figure 16. Abduction of the Leucippides by the Dioscuri and Garden of the Hes- 
perides. Attic red-figure hydria by the Meidias Painter. London, British Museum, 
London, E 224. Ca. 410 BCE. (Photograph after A. Furtwangler andK. Reichhold, 
Griechische Vasenmalerei I (Munich 1904) pi. 8.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

figure 17. Odysseus’ Descent to the Underworld. Drawing of Attic red-figure 
pelike attributed to the Lykaon Painter. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William 
Amory Gardner Fund, 34.79. Ca. 440 BCE. (Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine 
Arts, Boston.) 

figure 18. The Suicide of Ajax. Black-figure amphora by Exekias (drawing). 
Boulogne, Chateau-Musee, 558. Ca. 530 BCE. (Photograph after E. Pfuhl, Malerei 
und Zeichnung der Griechen. III. Band (Munich 1923) fig. 234.) 

Cambridge Collections Online © Cambridge University Press, 2009 

ii: Politics and Greek Myth 

Jonathan M. Hall 


P ausanias has long been essential reading for archaeology students 
and those interested in reconstructing the topography of ancient 
poleis. Yet - as anybody who has been frustrated by such infu- 
riatingly vague directions as ‘not far from’ or ‘a little further on’ can 
testify — Pausanias is not overwhelmingly interested in offering his read- 
ers a detailed guided tour of sites to see. Rather, the monuments that 
are described are the repositories of local narratives, both factual and 
fictional, that constitute an important part of the cultural heritage of a 
Greece now enslaved to Rome. 1 In the description of the Argive agora, 
for example, the reader is introduced in short order to the tomb where 
Danaus’ daughter Hypermnestra and her husband Lynceus are buried 
(2.21.2), the tumulus where Perseus interred Medusa’s head (21.5) and 
the underground bronze chamber in which Acrisius incarcerated Danae 
(23.7). Each polis that Pausanias visits grounds its unique identity in the 
specific matrix of myths and memories that are conveyed through such 
visible monuments. 2 

Myth was not, however, confined to affairs within the polis. From 
at least the fifth century, diplomatic relationships between poleis had 
been articulated through the vocabulary of kinship ( syngeneia ), often 
explained in terms of mythical connections between the two commu- 
nities. Thus, at about the time when Pausanias was writing (probably 
in the 160s and 170s CE), an inscription was set up in the Argive agora 
celebrating the kinship between Argos and Cilician Aegeae and noting 
that it dated back to the time when Perseus, son of Danae, travelled to 
Cilicia in his hunt for the Gorgons. 3 

Yet, for all that, the kinship that is publicized in inscriptions of the 
Late Hellenistic and Roman periods seems ever more artificial, and the 
mythological routes by which it is justified often seem so contrived and 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

contorted that it is difficult to believe in the sincerity of its signatories . 4 
Similarly, spend a lot of time with Pausanias and the novelty begins 
to jade, with the various myths that are dutifully recounted taking on 
something of an ossified aspect. The incessant accumulation of such 
narratives may invoke a potent cultural legacy, but the myths them- 
selves, which are variously derived from local lore, epic poetry, the 
written accounts of Hellenistic scholars, and rational deduction, lack 
any internal organizing structure or function. The fact is that myth 
meant something entirely different to Greeks of Pausanias’ generation 
than it had to their ancestors. Originally, the term mythoi connoted 
authoritative utterances that sought to advance powerful truth claims. 
Born in a predominantly oral environment, their potency relied in large 
part on their capacity to respond, adapt to, and seemingly explain new 
and changing circumstances. By contrast, Pausanias and his intellectual 
contemporaries belonged to a milieu that was decidedly bookish and in 
which the learned literary allusion was the guarantee of the educated 
man. Confined within the written word, mythoi not only were divorced 
from their original performative contexts but also were deprived of their 
fluid and adaptive faculty. Tellingly, when the Romans referred to Greek 
mythoi, they called them fabulae (mere ‘tales’ or ‘stories ’). 5 

One of the more significant contributions to modern scholarship 
on myth was the notion — advanced by Georges Dumezil and, more 
especially, Claude Levi-Strauss — that myth is taxonomy in narrative 
form . 6 That is to say, myth classifies, demarcates, and seeks to establish 
the relationship between categories. But, as the historian of religions 
Bruce Lincoln has pointed out, ‘taxonomy is hardly a neutral process, 
since the order established among all that is classified ... is hierarchic 
as well as categoric.’ Furthermore, the timeless, authoritative quality of 
myth serves to naturalize and legitimate the hierarchic categorization 
that it conveys. For this reason, Lincoln argues that myth may be defined 
as ‘ideology in narrative form .’ 7 To view myth as ideology introduces 
the issue of agency — something that was lacking in the theory of Levi- 
Strauss, for whom myths think themselves through humans. Through 
the dynamic dialectic between narrator and audience, traditional mate- 
rials could be reconfigured and modulated to stake claims about the 
natural order and to advance partisan interests, and it is precisely myth’s 
ideological character that made it so effective in the practice of ancient 
Greek politics. 

There is also, however, another feature of Greek myth that made 
it particularly apt for the politically fragmented landscape of the Greek 
world. Individual myths may have sought to express ideological messages 


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Politics and Greek Myti-i 

in narrative form, but they derived their authority and legitimacy from 
the fact that they drew on a relatively stable repertoire of symbolic 
resources. This was particularly important in the context of relationships 
between Greek city-states, since, as Aijun Appadurai has pointed out, 
‘any past must be interdependent with other “pasts” to ensure minimal 
credibility.’ 8 Put another way, Greek Myth (with a capital ‘M’) con- 
stituted what structural linguists call a langue (‘language’) or universally 
comprehensible system of symbols, from which a particular conjunction 
of symbols - a parole or ‘speech’ - could be assembled, deconstructed, 
and reassembled to achieve a particular ideological aim. The credibility 
and intelligibility of the parole was directly dependent upon the famil- 
iarity with, and recognition of, the langue, and for this reason myth was 
most effective not when it was invented ex nihilo but when it repre- 
sented itself as a modulation of a preexisting theme. In the remainder of 
this chapter, I will consider three case studies that demonstrate myth’s 
capacity to charter and justify changing political circumstances. 

Case Study i: The Bones of Orestes 
and Sparta’s ‘Philachaean Policy’ 

The Atreids at Sparta 

Around the middle of the sixth century, according to Herodotus 
(1.67—8), the Spartans exhumed what they claimed were the bones of 
Agamemnon’s son Orestes at the city of Tegea in Arcadia and transported 
them with much solemnity back to Sparta. 9 As a result, Herodotus says, 
the Spartans began to enjoy military success against the Tegeans, despite 
an earlier crushing defeat, and quickly subjugated most of the Pelo- 
ponnese. According to rumours, a high-ranking Spartan agent named 
Liches, on the instigation of the Delphic oracle, located the superhu- 
man cadaver in the courtyard of a blacksmith’s forge. Whatever was 
really inside the coffin that the Spartans transported to Sparta, it is clear 
that the procession was viewed as a return home. Pindar ( Pyth . 11 . 16, 32) 
describes Orestes as Laconian and narrates how his father, Agamemnon, 
met his pitiful end at ‘famous Amyclae,’ the village that lies 8 km to the 
south of Sparta. 10 This was no Pindaric invention, designed to flatter 
an aristocratic patron: already in the sixth century, the poet Stesichorus 
is said to have located Agamemnon’s palace at Sparta. 11 During his visit 
to Amyclae, Pausanias was shown a sanctuary and a statue of Alexan- 
dra - locally identified with the Trojan princess Cassandra - together 
with a statue of Clytaemnestra and ‘what is considered to be the tomb 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

of Agamemnon’ (3.19.6). Clement of Alexandria (Protr. 32) and the 
Scholiast to Lycophron (1123, 1369) added that Agamemnon was also 
worshipped in the sanctuary under the title Zeus Agamemnon. Archae- 
ological exploration of the sanctuary, located at Ayia Paraskevi, testifies 
to cultic activity since the late eighth century but, interestingly, it is only 
from ca. 525 BCE that inscribed dedications to both Agamemnon and 
Alexandra begin to make their appearance. 12 

The priority that Pausanias gives to Alexandra might suggest that 
she was the original recipient of cultic honours at Amyclae and that 
her association with Cassandra and the installation of a funerary cult 
to Agamemnon were innovations of the sixth century. That certainly 
seems to be the case at another sanctuary, conventionally but perhaps 
erroneously known as the Menelaion, situated near a Mycenaean ‘man- 
sion’ at Therapne, on the eastern banks of the Eurotas river. 13 Here, 
too, offerings are attested from the later eighth century and the ear- 
liest inscribed dedications — a seventh-century bronze aryballos and a 
sixth-century harpax — are to Helen. Helen seems to have occupied 
a particularly important place within Spartan cult: Herodotus (6.61.3) 
explicitly describes her as a goddess (she was, after all, the daughter of 
Zeus and sister of the Dioscuri). Menelaus was, however, to find a place 
in the sanctuary: the seventh-century aryballos mentions him (though 
only in terms of his spousal connection to Helen), but it is once more 
the sixth century that finds him the recipient of a dedicated bronze 
phiale. Finally, Pausanias (7.1.8) records that the Spartans also brought 
to Sparta the bones of Orestes’ son Tisamenus, who had been buried 
at Helice in Achaea after falling in a battle against the Ionians. 14 No 
date is offered for this episode, but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion 
that it should be grouped with all the other attempts to ‘repatriate’ the 
members of the Atreid family in the sixth century. 

A Spartan Agamemnon? Homer had, of course, located Atreus’ 
son at Mycenae, and it is presumably Pausanias’ supposed autopsy of 
Agamemnon’s grave at Mycenae (2.16.5) that causes him to question the 
Amyclaean claim. Yet Mycenae was singularly ill equipped to accom- 
modate Agamemnon’s sovereignty. In the Iliad (2.108), he is described 
as ruling over ‘the whole of Argos’ (where ‘Argos’ probably signifies 
the Peloponnese generally rather than the Argive plain specifically), and 
yet only a few hundred lines later, in the Catalogue of Ships (2.559-80), 
the Argive plain is under the joint sway ofDiomedes, Sthenelus, and 
Euryalus, the inheritors of the original Argive triarchy established by 
Anaxagoras, Melampus, and Bias. 15 To rehabilitate his otherwise slighted 
status, Agamemnon is assigned, in addition to Mycenae, a large part of 


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Politics and Greek Myti-i 

Corinthia, but this results in Bellerophon (whom the Corinthians of 
the historical period considered to be a civic hero) being consigned to 
the obscure village ofEphyre (6. 152). 16 

In fact, Homer was almost certainly aware of a tradition that associ- 
ated Agamemnon with Sparta. In the Odyssey (4.514—20), Agamemnon 
is described as running into a storm off Cape Malea in the southern 
Peloponnese on his way home from Troy, and it is difficult to under- 
stand what he was doing so far south if his intention was to return 
to Mycenae. 17 Similarly, his attempts in the Iliad (9.149—53) to appease 
Achilles’ wrath by offering him seven cities between Laconia and Messe- 
nia would be an empty act of magnanimity were they not his to offer in 
the first place. 18 A long-standing tradition that placed Agamemnon on 
the throne of Sparta rather than Mycenae might at least explain why, 
in the list of Helen’s suitors in the pseudo-Hesiodic Catalogue of Women 
(fr. 197 Merkelbach-West) , it is Agamemnon who seeks Helen’s hand 
‘on behalf of Menelaus.’ We might conjecture that the compiler was 
attempting to reconcile Spartan tradition with Homeric narrative. The 
Spartans in the sixth century, then, were resurrecting — rather than fab- 
ricating — a mythical tradition that associated Agamemnon with Sparta. 
But why? 

Spartan Foreign Relations 

The traditional explanation sees Sparta’s new ‘philachaean policy’ in 
terms of a desire to secure the goodwill, not only of the Tegeans but 
also of various other non-Dorian cities in the Peloponnese, by empha- 
sizing Sparta’s pre-Dorian ‘Achaean’ heritage. For many, this marks an 
abrupt change from an earlier policy of aggressive annexation — as took 
place in Messenia from the eighth century, for example, and as seems 
to have been the Spartans’ original intention towards Tegea - to the 
adoption of more pacific relations that sowed the seeds for the sys- 
tem of bilateral alliances that modern scholars term the Peloponnesian 
League. 19 The problem with this theory is that the Spartans never denied 
the fact that they believed themselves to be Dorian immigrants from 
further north who had expelled the former Achaean population from 
its home. 20 Indeed, their claims to Laconia were based precisely on the 
rights of conquest, and a cynical appeal to an Achaean heritage can 
hardly have carried many hopes of success. Another theory suggests 
that the ‘philachaean policy’ was designed to legitimate the authority 
of the two Spartan kings who, at least since the time of Tyrtaeus in 
the seventh century, did regard themselves as Achaean. 21 Indeed, the 


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early fifth-century king Cleomenes, when barred from trying to sac- 
rifice on the Athenian acropolis because he was a Dorian, is supposed 
to have responded that he was an Achaean, not a Dorian. 22 But this 
theory too is not without difficulties, because the Spartan kings traced 
their lineage back to Heracles through his son, Hyllus, and not to the 
Atreid dynasty, which had only very loose connections to the Heraclids 
(Heracles’ great-uncle, Sthenelus, married a sister of Atreus). 

Deborah Boedeker, pointing to the problems with the tradi- 
tional explanations, has argued that the Spartans’ promotion of the 
Atreid dynasty was designed to restore unity among a citizen body 
that had become increasingly riven by political, social, and economic 
differences. 23 This is certainly plausible, but Herodotus explicitly con- 
nects the transferral of Orestes’ bones both with Sparta’s relationship 
with Tegea and with her position in the Peloponnese. I should like 
to suggest that, while the ‘ethnic’ Achaean dimension has been over- 
stated, the attention given to the Atreid dynasty was indeed designed 
to offer a mythological precedent for the hegemonic alliance that the 
Spartans were constructing in the Peloponnese (perhaps originating in 
the orbit of her own neighbouring perioecic cities) and that it was a 
direct response to the mythological claims that were being staked by 
Argos, a city whose longstanding hostility towards Sparta had, accord- 
ing to Herodotus (1.82), reached a particularly critical juncture around 
the middle of the sixth century. 

The Argive Response 

We might perhaps have expected the Argives to co-opt Homeric 
authority and claim Agamemnon for themselves. That they did not 
is probably due to two factors. First, Homer located Agamemnon at 
Mycenae, not Argos, and although Mycenae was, in the sixth century, 
a relative backwater compared with its more powerful neighbour, it does 
seem to have retained its political (and cultural) independence. 24 (It was 
Aeschylus who transferred Agamemnon to Argos in the Agamemnon of 
458 BCE, following the Argive destruction of Mycenae a decade ear- 
lier, while in the Atreid tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, the two 
toponyms are used interchangeably.) Second, the inhabitants of Myce- 
nae never seem to have warmed to the hero that Homer foisted on 
them. In later times, Agamemnon was honoured in a small sanctuary, 
1 km from the citadel of Mycenae, but since all of the inscribed dedi- 
cations to him date to its Hellenistic refurbishment, some scholars have 
suggested that in its earlier phase (from the late eighth century down to 


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Politics and Greek Myti-i 

the fifth-century destruction of Mycenae), the sanctuary was a roadside 
shrine of Hera. 25 Instead, a far more important mythical personage was 
Perseus, and even as late as the Roman period, long after Argos had 
annexed the territories of Tiryns and Mycenae and expropriated their 
epichoric heroes, it was ‘the honours of Heracles and Perseus’ that were 
awarded to notable worthies, not ‘the honours of Agamemnon.’ 26 

A chance archaeological discovery in 1986 gives us a fairly good 
idea of the mythical discourse the Argives were employing in the sixth 
century. In the northern sector of the ancient agora, built into a fourth- 
century CE enclosure, was a reused pillar that had evidently served as 
part of a much earlier enclosure. On it, in letter forms dating to the mid- 
sixth century, was the inscription EPOON TON EN OEBA12 (probably 
to be translated as ‘The Heroon of those in Thebes’). 27 We do not know 
where the original enclosure stood, but the reused pillar was found in 
a part of the agora where Pausanias (2.19.7, 20.4) reports seeing a statue 
group of the seven Peloponnesian heroes who marched on Thebes in 
support of Polynices’ claim to Oedipus’ throne, as well as the altar of 
Zeus Hyetius, on which the heroes are supposed to have sworn an 
oath to capture Thebes or else die in the attempt. Pausanias describes a 
number of monuments associated with the myth, including the house 
of Adrastus and the sanctuary of Amphiaraus, but this archaeological 
finding at least demonstrates that the myth already possessed a functional 
significance in the mid-sixth century. 

The heroon was not a tomb. Although the Athenians claimed that 
Theseus had buried the heroes at Eleusis, 2 ' 5 the inscription seems to 
imply that the Argives believed their remains were interred at Thebes 
itself. Nor were the Argives claiming that the heroes were all local 
sons: Parthenopaeus was said to be Arcadian, while Tydeus, the father 
of Diomedes, hailed from Aetolia. But it was under an Argive leader, 
Adrastus, that the seven marched against Thebes, it was from Argos 
that they set out after swearing their fateful oath, and it was as Argives 
that their Theban opponents were to know them. As in the epic poem, 
the Thebais, where the city of Argos is invoked in the very first word, the 
establishment of the heroon was presumably intended to express the 
Argives’ claims to centrality and primacy within the Peloponnese by 
appealing to their leadership of a legendary Peloponnesian alliance 
against the most powerful Bronze Age city north of the Corinthian 

If this reconstruction is correct, both Sparta and Argos employed 
mythical prototypes of alliances to justify their own claims to Pelo- 
ponnesian hegemony in the mid-sixth century. It was the Spartans, 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

however, who played the trump card, because Agamemnon’s ‘coalition 
of the willing’ was far more expansive and inclusive than that of the 
Seven and, unlike the disastrous Theban expedition, it was collectively 
(if not individually) successful. If Herodotus (7.159) can be believed, the 
mythological precedent of Agamemnon’s hegemonic alliance had lost 
little of its symbolic potency even as late as the 480s BCE. When the 
Syracusan tyrant Gelon demanded the leadership of the Greek army in 
return for his aid against the invading Persians, the Spartan ambassador is 
said to have exclaimed ‘The Pelopid, Agamemnon, would wail greatly 
if he learned that the Spartans had been robbed of hegemony by Gelon 
and the Syracusans.’ 

Case Study 2: Theseus, Pisistratus, 


Theseus and Heracles 

Somewhere around 500 BCE (though the date is disputed), the Atheni- 
ans dedicated a small marble Doric treasury on the Sacred Way at Del- 
phi. 29 On the long northern side of the building, nine carved metopes 
depicted the Labours of Heracles (the tenth Labour, the battle with 
the triple -bodied Geryon, was represented on the west frieze) . On the 
more visible southern side was shown a parallel cycle of adventures 
involving Theseus, including combats against the Minotaur, the Bull 
of Marathon, the Sow of Crommyon, an Amazon, and the brigands 
Sinis, Cercyon, Procrustes, and Sciron. It has long been recognized that 
the decorative scheme of the building reflects a sea-change in Athe- 
nian iconography, whereby the exploits of the Athenian hero The- 
seus were championed at the expense of those of the more Panhellenic 
Heracles. The metopes of the Athenian treasury are compared with 
part of a statue group, found on the Athenian acropolis and conven- 
tionally dated between 510 and 500, that may represent Theseus’ combat 
with Procrustes, as well as with scenes that appear in the same decade 
on Attic red-figure pottery and that portray Theseus’ exploits on the 
road from Troezen to Athens. The normal explanation offered for the 
sudden interest in Theseus in the final decade of the sixth century 
is that he was promoted as the emblematic hero of the new Athe- 
nian democracy, established by Cleisthenes shortly after 508 BCE, with 
the explicit intention of neutralizing and eclipsing the iconographic 
importance of Heracles, a hero championed by the former Pisistratid 
regime. 30 


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Politics and Greek Myth 

From around die middle of the sixth century, Heracles receives a 
prominence in Athenian art that he had not known before and that even 
outweighs artistic representations of the hero in his native Peloponnese. 
Scholars are generally agreed that the guiding hand behind this phe- 
nomenon was probably the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, who is supposed 
to have ruled Athens continuously from ca. 546 to ca. 528 BCE after a 
couple of shorter-lived coups. 31 Particular interest has focused on scenes 
on Attic black-figure pottery that seem to begin in the 550s BCE and 
that portray Heracles being conveyed in a chariot to Mount Olympus 
alongside the goddess Athena because, according to Herodotus (1.60), 
after his first period of exile, Pisistratus processed to the Athenian acrop- 
olis in a chariot, accompanied by an extraordinarily tall woman named 
Phye, whom he dressed as Athena. It has also been noted that Pausa- 
nias (1.15.3) claims that the first people to recognize Heracles as a god, 
rather than a hero, were the people of Marathon — an area where the 
Pisistratid family seems to have commanded particularly strong support 
and to which Pisistratus’ son Hippias was to guide the Persian army in 
490 BCE. 32 But, even if we accept that Pisistratus was responsible for 
cultivating Heracles’ popularity in Attica, is it really so inevitable that 
he would have reserved his loyalty for this hero alone? Or is it possible 
that it was he or his sons, rather than the nascent democracy of ca. 500 
BCE, that first began to promote the claims of Theseus? 33 

Pisistratus or Cleisthenes? 

There has been something of a concerted campaign in recent decades 
to credit the Pisistratid tyrants with absolutely nothing. A notice, pur- 
portedly attributed to Aristotle, that connects Pisistratus with a reorga- 
nization of the Panathenaia festival is normally dismissed in favour of 
Eusebius’ statement that an athletic contest was established in 566/ 5 - 
a date considered by many to be too early for Pisistratid involvement. 34 
Yet, quite apart from the fact that the chronology for the earlier phases 
of Pisistratus’ tyranny actually rests on extremely precarious evidence, 35 
little effort has been expended in explaining how Eusebius, writing in 
the early fourth century CE, arrived at his date or in asking whether the 
introduction of games in the 560s (which does roughly correspond with 
the first production of the Panathenaic amphorae that were awarded 
as prizes) necessarily excludes later Pisistratid involvement. Religious 
building projects such as the Archaic temple to Artemis at Brauron, 
the sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian acropolis, the sec- 
ond Telesterion (Initiation Hall) at Eleusis, or the City Eleusinion, once 


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unproblematically dated to the reign of Pisistratus or his sons, have grad- 
ually been downdated so that their construction falls within the final 
decade of the sixth century, after the expulsion of Pisistratus’ son Hippias 
in 510 BCE. 36 A case in point is the so-called Archaios Neos, dedicated 
to Athena Polias on the Athenian acropolis. Originally dated to the last 
quarter of the sixth century and generally attributed to Hippias and 
his brother, Hipparchus, the argument has recently been advanced that 
it dates more precisely to the period 510—500 and hence cannot be 
associated with the tyranny. 37 

Is it pure chance that many of these revisionist chronologies were 
published around the year 1993 (the year widely acclaimed as marking 
the 2,500th anniversary of Cleisthenes’ reforms and the invention of 
democracy) or that many of them should have been written by scholars 
from America — the modern inheritor of the form of governance that 
the Athenians supposedly invented? Is it possible, in other words, that 
a particular ideology is being advanced in narrative form, thus reveal- 
ing — as Lincoln reluctantly admits — scholarship to be itself a form of 
myth? 38 There are actually very few signs that the Pisistratid tyranny 
was execrated immediately after Hippias’ expulsion. In fact, a member 
of the family held the archonship or chief magistracy in 496 BCE and 
it may not have been until the 480s BCE, after the Battle of Marathon, 
that the regime suffered a damnatio memoriae and statues of the ‘tyranni- 
cides’ who had assassinated Hipparchus in 514 BCE were set up in the 
Athenian agora . 39 

One thing that needs to be pointed out is that, despite undeniable 
advances in method in recent decades, chronological assignments that 
are based on stylistic considerations such as floor plans, measurement 
ratios, or the evolving profile of Doric capitals are not nearly as precise 
as they might initially appear. Not only are they predicated on the 
probably erroneous fallacy that stylistic evolution is unilineal, uniform, 
and universal, but also they are anchored to an absolute chronology 
by dates that are very often little more than hazarded guesses. The 
events by which the Pisistratid tyranny ended in 510 BCE involved 
a siege of the Acropolis by the Spartan king Cleomenes that lasted 
only a few days. Archaeological chronologies based on purely stylistic 
considerations are simply incapable of determining which side of that 
brief event a monument or an artefact should fall. 

Furthermore, attempts to assign a precise, or relatively circum- 
scribed, date to a building fail to give due attention to issues concern- 
ing planning and execution. Both the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and 
the Parthenon seem to have taken about fifteen years to build. Not all 


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buildings would have taken as long, but even if we could be confident 
that the sculptures on the pediments of the Archaios Neos seem more 
advanced than — and therefore postdate — those on the pediments of the 
Temple of Apollo at Delphi, or that the treatment of Athena’s drapery 
belongs more properly in the final decade of the sixth century, 40 it is by 
no means impossible that the temple was conceived and commissioned 
prior to the fall of the Pisistratids — especially since the architectural 
sculpture would have been the last part of the temple to be executed. A 
further complication is that it is difficult to gauge the amount of time 
that it would have taken Athenian artists to adopt and adapt new mytho- 
logical themes. Even if it were the case that not a single scene portraying 
Theseus’ exploits on the road from Troezen pre-dates 510 BCE (and 
since we do not know how representative our extant sample is, absolute 
certainty is impossible), we still cannot rule out the possibility that tales 
concerning the hero’s deeds were circulating in written or oral form at 
an earlier date, with the active encouragement of the Pisistratid family. 

In fact, the reassignment of late sixth-century monuments away 
from the Pisistratids to the Cleisthenic democracy presents two funda- 
mental historical problems. The first is that it compresses far too much 
into far too narrow a chronological window. The immediate years subse- 
quent to Hippias’ expulsion were tumultuous; Cleisthenes did not enact 
his reforms until 508 BCE, at the very earliest, and they probably took 
some time to effect, so in essence it is unlikely that major monuments 
were commissioned before ca. 506 or thereabouts. Some have suggested 
that the Archaios Neos was built as a thanks offering after the Athenian 
defeat of the Boeotians and Chalcidians in 506, but that is something 
that we might have expected Herodotus to mention, especially since he 
discusses the erection on the Acropolis of a bronze four-horse chariot 
group as a commemoration of the victory. 41 The second is that one is 
left wondering exactly what it was that the Pisistratids did during their 
almost fifty-year reign. 42 Despite the overwhelmingly negative tone 
of narrative traditions about tyrants in general, 43 the Pisistratids were 
remembered as patrons of the art and it would be odd if this had not 
extended beyond the merely literary sphere to include public works. 44 
It is, for example, generally accepted that Hippias and Hipparchus began 
construction of a new temple to Olympian Zeus in the Ilissus valley. 

When, shortly after the middle of the fifth century, the Athenian 
democracy embarked on its ambitious building project on the Athenian 
acropolis, detractors are said to have compared it not with a programme 
executed half a century earlier by the fledgling democracy but with the 
acts of a tyrant. 45 The Periclean works were largely financed with the 


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proceeds of the Athenian Empire, but where would the first democracy 
have found its funds? It is inconceivable that the spoils won from the 
Boeotians and the Chalcidians would have been sufficient. The fact is 
that it was tyrants who were particularly well placed to mobilize man- 
power and resources and it is for this reason that the literary sources con- 
sistently credit them with building projects. Furthermore, even under 
a democracy, such an undertaking required resolute planning and firm 
direction. The names of Pericles and Phidias are forever associated with 
the fifth-century refurbishment of the Acropolis; nobody — least of all 
Cleisthenes, who vanishes completely from the historical record after his 
tribal reforms — is associated with a project at the end of the sixth cen- 
tury. Such deliberate anonymity might, in fact, suggest that its initiator 
was the tyrant or his sons. 

Pisistratus and Theseus 

Let us return to Theseus. If representations of Theseus and in particular 
his exploits on the road from Troezen multiply in the last decade of the 
sixth century, it remains the case that he is not invisible in Athenian art 
prior to this date (it should be noted that one can have a little more 
confidence in the relative chronology of painted pottery as opposed 
to architecture, though this should not be exaggerated). Just a little 
earlier than the Troezen scenes, Theseus is portrayed battling against 
the Crommyonian Sow on a red-figure cup found at Cerveteri, while 
his abduction of the Amazon Antiope is represented on a red-figure 
cup ascribed to Euphronius, thought to be active from ca. 520 BCE. 
A little earlier still, probably around 530 BCE, a black-figure amphora 
now in Paris may depict the episode with the Marathonian Bull. From 
the middle of the sixth century, he is commonly depicted fighting the 
Minotaur and on the famous Attic volute krater known as the Francois 
Vase, found at Chiusi and dated to ca. 570 BCE or a little later, he 
is portrayed battling the centaurs and instituting a victory dance (the 
geranos or ‘crane dance’) on the island of Delos. 46 If Theseus enjoyed an 
upsurge in popularity under the Cleisthenic democracy, he was certainly 
not an invention of that regime. 

There are, in fact, a number of reasons that Pisistratus might have 
found the figure of Theseus appealing. Theseus’ ordeals on the road 
to Athens could have been thought to prefigure Pisistratus’ own dif- 
ficult efforts to seize power, while the hero’s birth in Argolic Troezen 
offered a precedent for Pisistratus’ marriage to the Argive Timonassa 
and, with it, an alliance that yielded dividends during his final, successful 


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attempt at the tyranny, when he enlisted the support of 1,000 Argive 
mercenaries. 47 Similarly, Theseus’ celebrated friendship with Pirithous, 
king of the Thessalian Lapiths, could serve as a charter for Pisistratus’ 
ties to powerful Thessalian families — he named one of his sons Thessa- 
los and, against a first unsuccessful Spartan invasion under Anchimolus, 
Hippias was able to count on the assistance of 1,000 cavalry under 
the Thessalian Cineas. 48 According to one, possibly Troezenian tradi- 
tion, Theseus was the son of Poseidon, as was Neleus, the Pylian king 
from whom Pisistratus claimed descent. A homonymous descendant of 
Neleus was credited with the foundation of Miletus, the most impor- 
tant of the Ionian cities of Asia Minor that regularly celebrated their 
ethnic communion in Poseidon’s sanctuary at Mycale. 49 The religious 
centre for the western Ionians, however, was the sanctuary of Apollo, 
Artemis, and Leto on the sacred island of Delos. Delos had a particular 
connection with Theseus because it was here that he is supposed to have 
conveyed the Athenian youths he rescued from the Minotaur’s labyrinth 
and instituted the dance known as the gemnos . 50 But it also boasted a 
connection with Pisistratus, who is said to have purified the island and 
reorganized the festival of the Deleia. 51 One scholar has even hypothe- 
sized that the Athenian theoria or sacred embassy that was dispatched to 
the island in anticipation of the festival passed through Brauron — the 
area of eastern Attica where the original home of the Pisistratids was 
said to be located. 52 

As we have seen, the Pisistratids were also associated with the 
area around Marathon, where Theseus is said to have battled a fero- 
cious bull. 53 Across the Euripos straits from Marathon, on the island 
of Euboea, lay the city ofEretria, which served as the base for Pisis— 
tratid operations immediately before the final, successful attempt at the 
tyranny. 54 Indeed, another of Pisistratus’ wives was said to be an aris- 
tocratic woman from Eretria named Coesyra. 55 In the centre of the 
city was the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros, where cult stretches 
back to at least the eighth century, if not earlier. Towards the end of 
the sixth century, the Eretrians constructed a limestone temple with 
marble decoration, including a group that stood in one of the pedi- 
ments and depicted Theseus’ rape of Antiope. The date of the group, 
once confidently given as ca. 510 BCE, has surreptitiously slipped down 
in more recent scholarship, and one explanation given for the theme 
is that ‘democratic’ Eretria ‘borrowed’ the fresh hero of the Athenian 
democracy to celebrate its close alliance with Athens - especially on 
the occasion of the aid the two poleis offered to the rebellious cities 
of Ionia in 498 BCE. 56 But there really is no compelling evidence to 


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suggest that the ‘horsemen who controlled the government ofEretria’ 57 
and who had supported Pisistratus had lost control of the city before its 
destruction by the Persians in 490, and it is more likely that the sculp- 
tural decoration of the temple commemorates Eretria’s close ties with 
one of the more prominent (albeit tyrannical) families of Attica than 
with the incipient democracy of Cleisthenes. 

The Unification of Attica 

It was, however, for the synoikismos or unification of Attica that The- 
seus was most remembered. According to Thucydides (2. 15 .2), Theseus 
dissolved the councils and offices of the other communities of Attica 
and compelled them to use a single bouleuterion (council chamber) and 
prytaneion (town hall) in Athens. The legendary event was commem- 
orated in an annual festival named the Synoikia. It is easy to see why 
this might suggest a parallel with the legislation of Cleisthenes. The 
centrepiece of his reforms was to distribute the around 140 rural com- 
munities and urban wards among ten newly created ‘tribes’ to ensure 
that each tribe included communities from various parts of Attica, be it 
the interior, the coastal communities, or the city of Athens itself. Yet it 
is also becoming clear that the reforms were not a brand-new invention, 
designed to replace loyalties to particular lineage groups with ties based 
on locality, but rather a reorganization or reconfiguration — possibly for 
partisan political purposes — of a preexisting system in which various 
local units known as naukrariai had been distributed among the original 
four tribes of Attica. 58 Furthermore, undue emphasis on the Cleisthenic 
reforms underestimates the measures that Pisistratus and his sons seem 
to have taken to promote Attic unification. 

Pisistratus is said to have introduced circuit judges who would 
go out into the countryside of Attica, dispensing the same standard of 
justice to all, 59 while Hipparchus is credited with setting up herms (ithy- 
phallic pillars supporting the bust of the god Hermes) on the principal 
thoroughfares of Attica — one has been discovered at Koropi in south- 
ern Attica — on which were inscribed distances from the Altar of the 
Twelve Gods, dedicated in the centre of the Athenian agora by Pisistra- 
tus’ homonymous grandson, probably in 521 BCE. 60 With the recent 
attempts to downdate the construction projects at Athens, Brauron, and 
Eleusis, definitive conclusions as to whether the Pisistratids sought to 
integrate these rural cults into an Athenian cultic system, marked by 
regular processions to the major sanctuaries from their urban counter- 
parts, must remain sub judice . 61 Nevertheless, a late source does explicitly 


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associate Pisistratus with the temple of Artemis at Brauron, and the cult 
at Eleusis can only really have become truly Athenian once Athens had 
been victorious in its war against neighbouring Megara — a victory that 
is said to have been secured under the generalship of Pisistratus. It is 
surely not insignificant that, way back in the past, Theseus is said to 
have captured Eleusis from the Megarians. 62 

As with the case of the Spartans and Agamemnon, Pisistratus could 
claim no direct lineal relationship with Theseus. Neleus’ son Melan- 
thus was an outsider from Pylos — a mythical antecedent that evidently 
proved useful to Pisistratus initially — and he assumed the royal power 
that had formerly been exercised by Thymoetes, the last descendant 
of Theseus. 63 But, as too in the Spartan example, Theseus offered an 
attractive prototype of the strong, wise, and just leader and, according 
to the myth, the transfer of power from the Theseids to the Neleids 
had been by the common consent of the people: in a certain sense, 
Melanthus promised a renewal of those qualities that Theseus had once 
demonstrated and from which his descendants had departed. 

The author of the fourth-century Aristotelian Constitution of the 
Athenians (15.4-5) evidently believed there was a strong association 
between Pisistratus and Theseus. In describing the ruse by which the 
tyrant disarmed the population, he notes that Pisistratus gathered the 
people at the sanctuary of Theseus and addressed them sotto voce, com- 
pelling them to come closer while his henchmen gathered up their arms 
and deposited them in the shrine. The evidence considered here also 
supports the argument that it was Pisistratus, and not the Cleisthenic 
democracy, who first elevated the figure of Theseus to Panathenaic 
status. And this, I would venture, is why the eventual democratic coop- 
tion of Theseus was so successful. Rather than introducing a completely 
new component into the mythological vocabulary of Athenian art and 
culture, the democracy usurped a preexisting figure and endowed him 
with a different signification. The clearest example of this democratic 
usurpation is presented by Theseus’ appearance on the friezes above 
the pronaos and opisthodomos of the Temple of Hephaestus, overlook- 
ing the Athenian agora and dating to the mid-fifth century. The friezes 
depict early events from Athenian history (including Theseus’ defence 
of Athens against the Amazons, which appears above the opisthodomos), 
but what is truly remarkable is the stance in which Theseus is depicted 
on the two friezes, echoing precisely the two statues of the ‘tyrannicides’ 
that Critius and Nesiotes produced ca. 475 (the same motif appears on 
red-figured vases of the 460s and 450s; see Figures 3 and 4). 64 Theseus - 
at root, an autocrat like Pisistratus - had been recast as one of the 


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tyrant-killers that popular Athenian belief, however incorrectly, regar- 
ded as the founding fathers of democracy. 

Case Study 3: Between Dardanians and 
Phrygians: Representations of the 
Trojans in Greek Myth 

The Trojans in Archaic Literature 

One of the most enduring mythological themes in classical antiquity was 
the Achaean expedition against Troy. Constituting the backdrop not 
only for the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also for Rome’s national epic, the 
Aeneid, the ten-year war that pitted Achaeans against Trojans came to 
stand as the epitome of an eternal and implacable hostility between east 
and west and one of the foundation stones for an ‘orientalist’ mentality 
that has, as Edward Said so powerfully demonstrated, pervaded western 
culture down to the present day. 65 

It had not always been so. In the Iliad, the Trojan protagonists bear 
Greek names, worship the same gods as the Greeks, have the same civic 
organization as the Greeks — indeed, in many respects, Troy is an archety- 
pal Greek polis - and are portrayed by the poet no less (and perhaps 
even more) sympathetically than the Greeks. Greeks and Trojans might 
find themselves contracted to long-standing institutionalized guest- 
friendships, as in the famous case of Diomedes and Glaucon. 66 This is 
not to say that there are no differences between Greeks and Trojans. The 
Trojans — and Paris especially — are represented as being fond of luxury 
and good living, as well as a little excitable and disordered compared with 
their Greek counterparts. Furthermore, the language of the Achaeans 
tends to be more aggressive, externally directed, public, and political, 
while that of the Trojans is more reflective, introspective, private, and 
poetic. But there is nothing to suggest that this is a result of anything 
more than the dictates of characterization or that there is any ethnic 
significance to the distinctions. 67 Priam’s son Hector received funer- 
ary cult in the Boeotian city of Thebes and Cassandra was, as we have 
seen, the recipient of cult at Amyclae and perhaps also at the Laconian 
sites of Leuctra and Thalamae, prompting some to suspect that the Iliad’s 
story originally recounted a war between two Greek cities that was later 
transposed to the Troad. 68 

The Homeric epics do not seem to be exceptional in their rep- 
resentation of the Trojans. One of Sappho’s poems (fr. 44 Lobel-Page) 


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celebrates the wedding of Hector to Andromache. In it, the poetess 
describes the adornments that accompanied the bridal party — golden 
bracelets, purple robes, ornate trinkets, countless silver drinking-cups, 
and ivory. There is no hint here of disdain for such luxuries: indeed, 
Sappho elsewhere extols items of Lydian dress and says that she is ‘in 
love with habrosyne (luxurious delicacy). 69 Ever since the tenth cen- 
tury, when objects of predominantly North Syrian origin begin to be 
deposited in graves in Attica, Euboea, Crete, and the Dodecanese, the 
elite had demarcated their status through the consumption and dis- 
play of orientalia, whose prestige value was guaranteed by the diffi- 
culty of their acquisition. 70 By the time of Sappho in the late seventh 
century, the elites of the East Greek world looked to Lydian fashions 
and accessories to communicate social distinction; by the last third of 
the sixth century, the vogue had reached Athens, witnessed by the 
luxuriant and sumptuous garments sported by the korai dedicated on 
the acropolis. Not everybody was seduced: Xenophanes of Colophon 
(fr. 3 West) criticized his fellow citizens for learning ‘useless luxuries’ 
from the Lydians, but this is more of a social critique than an ethnic 
aspersion. On Attic vases of the second half of the sixth century, the 
Trojans — the Lydians’ mythical prototype — are not distinguished by any 
pronounced ethnic characteristics (unlike, for example, the Scythians 
and the Thracians). Indeed, on the east frieze of the Treasury of the 
Siphnians at Delphi, constructed ca. 525 BCE, both Greeks and Trojans 
alike are depicted as hoplites — the heavily armed infantrymen who 
were later considered to be the embodiment of everything that made 
the Greeks unique. 71 

The Trojans also feature prominently in the ktiseis or foundation- 
narratives of overseas settlements — a genre that appears to become 
popular in the course of the sixth century. Trojan women are said to 
have accompanied their Achaean captors and settled in the territory of 
Croton in South Italy; further up the coast, the city of Siris had, accord- 
ing to one tradition, been founded by Trojans, while Thucydides (6.2.3) 
and Hellanicus (4 FGrH 31) both record the Trojan origins of the Elymi- 
ans of western Sicily. 72 The most famous Trojan foundation in the west 
was, of course, Rome. Best known to us from Vergil, the story of the 
city’s Trojan origins had already been accommodated - alongside the 
traditions concerning Romulus and Remus and the Arcadian Evander — 
within the official account of Roman origines by the third century 
BCE, though it is possible that Aeneas had already been associated 
with the West in the works of Stesichorus. 73 It was once believed that 


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the identification of indigenous Italian populations with the Trojans 
was a device by which their ‘otherness’ might be articulated. This pic- 
ture is complicated, however, by a tradition - possibly attested first in 
Hellanicus (4 FGrH 84) — that Aeneas had founded Rome together 
with Odysseus. Conversely, the Greek city of Aenea in the Thracian 
Chalcidice seems to have displayed no qualms about attributing its foun- 
dation to the Trojan prince Aeneas: silver tetradrachms of the sixth 
century portray Aeneas with his aged father, Anchises, on his shoulders 
and his wife and son at his side. 74 This has prompted the suggestion that 
the attribution of Trojan ancestry may have been designed to bridge, 
rather than emphasize, the divide between the Greek and non-Greek 
worlds. 75 

The Orientalization of the Trojans 

In the fifth century, however, the Trojans were ‘orientalized,’ becom- 
ing assimilated with the generic antitypical figure of the barbarian and, 
more especially, with the Phrygians, for whom a distinctive icono- 
graphic stereotype simultaneously emerged in Attic vase painting. 76 The 
Trojans’ penchant for luxurious living was now recast in unremittingly 
negative terms but, in addition to this, they were regarded as wily, effem- 
inate, and cowardly. In Euripides’ Andromache, probably performed in 
the 420s BCE, Hermione castigates the play’s Trojan protagonist for 
bearing children by those who murdered her kin: ‘That’s how the whole 
barbarian race is: father sleeps with daughter, son with mother and sister 
with brother’ (173— 5). 77 

It has long been recognized that the development of a barbarian 
stereotype was a consequence of the Persian War of 480-479 BCE. 
Attested only very infrequently before this date, the term barbaros now 
becomes far more common in Greek literature and Attic drama in 
particular. By embodying every characteristic that was thought to be 
the negation of Greek qualities, the invention of the barbarian invited 
speculation on what it was that Greeks had in common and was there- 
fore crucial for conceiving of Hellenic identity more widely. 78 But the 
historical circumstances in which the figure developed meant that the 
archetypal barbarian was the Persian and that all other non-Greeks — 
especially easterners - were, in a certain sense, proxies for the histor- 
ical foe that the Greeks had repulsed. This was no less true for the 
Trojans. Pindar’s fifth Isthmian Ode, written in the 470s BCE, explicitly 
compares the Battle of Salamis, in which the Greeks scored a crushing 
victory over the Persian fleet, to the Battle of Troy. The ode was written 


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for a victor from Aegina, and it is interesting that the Aeginetans, whose 
valour at Salamis was commented upon by Herodotus (8.93.1), chose 
to adorn the pediments of the Temple of Aphaea with scenes depict- 
ing Agamemnon’s expedition against Troy and the earlier assault on 
the city by Heracles. 79 On the Parthenon, the juxtaposition of carved 
metopes depicting the Greek sack of Troy with those portraying com- 
bats between Gods and Giants, Lapiths and Centaurs, and Athenians 
and Amazons was almost certainly designed to evoke the more recent 
historical conflict with the Persians. Any subtle allusions were discarded 
in the Stoa Poikile in the Athenian agora, where a painting of the Greeks 
at Troy was hung alongside one recording the Athenian victory over 
the Persians at Marathon. 80 

Athens, in whose art and literature the barbarian figures most 
prominently, had much to gain by perpetuating this symbolic stereotype, 
since the league over which the Athenians presided and from which 
much of their wealth was derived was maintained by the threat of a 
permanent hostility with the east. There was, however, more to it than 
that. The term demokratia, which seems to have emerged as a political 
slogan in the 460s BCE, certainly carried connotations of equality but 
literally signified the power of the demos — a word that had been used, 
in Archaic poetry, to describe the general populace as opposed to the 
elite. Put another way, the political victory of the Athenian people — 
and, of course, it was this section of Athenian society that had crewed 
the ships at Salamis - was achieved at the expense of the elite. But, 
as we have seen, one of the ways in which the elite communicated its 
distinctiveness in the Archaic period was in the consumption and display 
of eastern artefacts and practices. By fostering the sense of an eternal 
and implacable enmity between west and east, the Athenian populace 
was effectively proscribing elite practices and seeking to dissolve visible 
cultural distinctions between classes. 81 

The assimilation of the Trojans to the Persians was to exercise a 
powerful effect on politics in the fourth century. Before setting out on 
his disastrous expedition against the Persian empire in 396 BCE, Age- 
silaus II of Sparta attempted to offer sacrifice at Boeotian Aulis - from 
where Agamemnon’s fleet had supposedly sailed out - until the rituals 
were disrupted by the Boeotian cavalry. 82 This was a period in which 
conflict between Greek cities was endemic. The solution proposed by 
the Athenian orator Isocrates was to launch a Panhellenic campaign of 
vengeance against the Persian Empire — purportedly in the name of ret- 
ribution for the Persian invasion more than a century earlier, but with 
the principal intention of persuading the Greek city-states to submerge 


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their differences in a common undertaking. In the Panathenaicus, com- 
pleted in 339 BCE, Isocrates embarked on a eulogy of Agamemnon, 
‘the only man deemed worthy of being the general of the whole of 
Hellas’ (76), before asking who of his contemporaries might be worthy 
of serving as a second Agamemnon. The Spartans, he argues, are ruled 
out because of their injustices against cities in the Peloponnese (74). 
The Athenians, by contrast, have offered ample demonstration of their 
goodwill to other cities (96). Isocrates was not, however, convinced that 
Athens had leaders of the right calibre. In time, albeit reluctantly, he 
came to believe that the only person worthy of assuming Agamemnon’s 
mantle was Philip II ofMacedon. 

Philip never led the Panhellenic campaign against Persia. He was 
assassinated in 336 BCE, days before he planned to set out for the east, 
and the task fell to his son, Alexander the Great. Alexander was acutely 
conscious of how mythical discourse might be exploited for political 
ends. In reality, Greeks constituted less than one-sixth of his infantry 
forces, yet Alexander was keen to promote the campaign as a Panhel- 
lenic venture, especially in his appeal to Homeric authority. Shortly 
after crossing the Hellespont, following a route that largely replicated 
in reverse that taken by Xerxes more than a century and a half earlier, 
Alexander insisted on visiting Troy, where he offered sacrifices at what 
he was told was the tomb of Achilles — supposedly an ancestor on the side 
of his mother, Olympias. 83 The symbolism was not, however, to outlive 
either Alexander’s ambitions or the vicissitudes that beset his army and, 
within just a decade, the great Panhellenic avenger had himself been 
recast in the role of the oriental despot. 

A Tourkokratic Epilogue 

I have suggested throughout that the efficacy of myth for political ends 
in the Greek world resided in the fact that it constituted a familiar 
communicative system in which modulations on a theme commanded 
greater acceptance and acquiescence than would have been the case with 
wholesale invention. Myth derived its dynamic vitality and capacity to 
provide symbolic resources for ideological narratives precisely because 
it was constantly being refreshed and rejuvenated in oral performative 
contexts. Once it was divorced from those original contexts, frozen or 
fossilized in learned literary tomes, it largely lost its former potency 
though it continued, of course, to exercise the imagination of later 
writers and artists who followed in the western tradition. 


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Politics and Greek Myti-i 

In his memoirs, the Comte de Marcellus describes a literary 
evening held in the Bosphoran mansion of a Phanariot Greek in the 
winter of 1820/ 1821, just months before the outbreak of the Greek War 
of Independence. A young man, who was later to lose his life in that 
struggle, proceeded to give a reading of Aeschylus’ Persians, interspersed 
with a recitation of the Thourios, a war hymn written by Rigas Pheraios, 
whose appeals for liberation from the Ottoman Turks resulted in his exe- 
cution in Belgrade in 1798. 84 Just as the Trojans had served as mythical 
antecedents for the Persians, so now the Persians were reemployed as 
the prototypes for a new eastern power, intent on subjugation and the 
suppression of liberty. There was nothing mythical about the Persians, 
but their literary redeployment on that winter evening created a new 
narrative with an ideological purpose and, even in the afterglow of the 
Enlightenment, a new myth was born. 

Further Reading 

Graf (1993) offers an excellent introduction to Greek myth and how it 
has been studied in recent centuries. Though now rather dated, Nilsson 
(1951) is still an important introduction to how myth functioned within 
politics in the ancient Greek world. Some valuable insights can also 
be gleaned from Burkert (1979) and Dowden (1992), while Calame 
(2003 b) explores the complex interplay between myth, history, and 
politics in relation to the foundation accounts for the Greek colony of 
Cyrene in Libya. For the view of myth as ideology in narrative form, 
I am indebted to Lincoln (1999), who tests the hypothesis not only 
against Greek, Old Irish, Norse, Iranian, and Hindu myths but also 
against the scholarship on myth from the Renaissance through to the 
present day. 

Malkin (1994) presents a fascinating general account of how the 
Spartans ‘thought themselves’ through myth. The specific cases con- 
cerning the Spartan promotion of Agamemnon and the Argive promo- 
tion of the Seven against Thebes are treated in more detail, with full 
references, in Hall (1999) and Philips (2003). Anderson (2003) provides 
a lively account of Athenian politics of the sixth century and how they 
were reflected in art, myth, and cult, although he may underestimate 
the role that Pisistratus played; the most recent consideration of Pisis— 
tratus, and especially his earlier career, is that of Lavelle (2005). Shapiro 
(1989) is still a useful overview of art and cult under the tyranny. For 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

the changing representation of the Trojans in Greek thought and lit- 
erature, Erskine (2001) is essential. An early, but thorough, account of 
Greek perceptions of non-Greeks is that ofjuthner (1923); for a more 
recent treatment see Hall (2002) 172—228 and, with particular reference 
to Greek tragedy, Hall (1989). 


1 See, for example, Bingen and Reverdin (1996); Alcock et al. (2001). 

2 For the interaction between memory and the landscape, see Alcock (2002). 

3 SEG 26 426. See Curty (1995) esp. 13-15 and Jones (1999). 

4 Musti (1963). 

5 See, for example, Vernant (1983b), Detienne (1986), Veyne (1988), Buxton (1994), 
and Bietenholz (1994). 

6 See the discussion in Lincoln (1999) 146—7. 

7 Lincoln (1999) 147. 

8 Appadurai (1981) 203. 

9 Cf. Pausanias 3.3.7. 

10 Cf. Nem. 11.34. 

11 In the Scholiast to Euripides, Or. 46. 

12 Preliminary reports of the excavation appear (in Greek) in the Praktika of the 
Greek Archaeological Society for 1956, i960, and 1961. For a general account, 
see Hooker (1980) 60—62. The dating of the inscriptions is argued by Johnston in 
Jeffery (1990) 447. 

13 Catling and Cavanagh (1976); Catling (1986); Tomlinson (1992); Whitley (1994) 
221; Antonaccio (1995) 155—66; Hall (1995) 602. 

14 Leahy (1955). 

15 Pausanias 2.18.4. 

16 For Bellerophon’s associations with Corinth, see Nilsson (1972) 51. 

17 Podlecki (1971) 315; Malkin (1994) 31. 

18 Malkin (1994) 125. 

19 For example, Cartledge (1979) 139; cf. McCauley (1999). 

20 Tyrtaeus fr. 2 Diehl; Herodotus 8.73.1; Pausanias 7.1.5— 7. 

21 Nafissi (1991) 140—44. 

22 Herodotus 5.72.3. 

23 Boedeker (1993). 

24 Hall (1995) 587-92. 

25 For the excavation of the shrine, see Cook (1953). For doubts about an early 
identification with Agamemnon: Marinatos (1953) 87—8; Morgan and Whitelaw 
(1991) 89 n. 50; Hall (1995) 602-3. 

26 IG IV 493. See Jameson (1990) 222. 

27 Pariente (1992). 

28 Plutarch, Thes. 29.4-5; Pausanias 1.39.2. 

29 For a discussion of the dating: Bommelaer and Laroche (1991) 133—5. 

30 Among the more recent advocates of this view are Brommer (1982), Neils (1987), 
Kearns (1989), Calarne (1990), and Anderson (2003). 

31 See, especially, Boardman (1972, 1975, 1989). 


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6 o 









Politics and Greek Myth 

Herodotus (1.62.1) seems to imply that the Pisistratids had political supporters in 
the area of Marathon. 

As suggested by, among others, Connor (1970) 145—50; Shapiro (1989) 147—9; 
Tyrrell and Brown (1991) 161-5. 

Aristotle fr. 637 Rose; Scholiast to Aelius Aristides, Panath. 189. 
Sancisi-Weerdenburg (2000). 

For the association of many of these projects with the Pisistratids, see Boersma 
(1970). For revised datings: Shapiro (1989) 66; Stewart (1990) 124-5; Hayashi 
(1992) 19-29; Miles (1998). 

Childs (1994). 

Lincoln (1999) 207. 

For the damnatio memoriae, Lycurgus, Leocr. 117. See, generally, Lavelle (1993). 

For example, Stewart (1990) 129—30. 

Herodotus 5.77. The inscription commemorating the victory was found on the 
Athenian Acropolis (Meiggs-Lewis no. 15). 

The length of time, with interruptions, given by the Aristotelian AthPol 19.6. 

See McGlew (1993). 

For Pisistratid cultivation of the arts, see AthPol 18. 1. 

Plutarch, Per. 12. 

Cerveteri cup: ARV 83.14. Euphronius cup: ARV 58.51. Paris amphora: ABV 
315.2. See, generally, Anderson (2003) 254. 

Herodotus 1.61.4; AthPol 17.4. 

AthPol 17.3, 19.5. 

Herodotus 9.97; cf. 1.145; Hellanicus 4 FGrH 125. 

Plutarch, Thes. 21. 

Herodotus 1.64.2; Thucydides 3.104.1. 

Peppas-Delmousou (1988). For the location of the Pisistratid home at Philaidai, 
near Brauron: [Plato], Hipparch. 228b; cf. Plutarch, Sol. 10.3. 

Plutarch, Thes. 14. 1. 

Herodotus 1.61.2. 

Scholiast to Aristophanes, Nub. 48. 

Stewart (1990) 137. 

AthPol 15.2. 

AthPol 21. s', Pollux, Onom. 8.108. 

AthPol 16.5. 

[Plato], Hipparch. 228b— 229b; cf. Thucydides 6.54.6. 

The model is that of Polignac (1995). 

Pisistratus and Brauron: Photius s.v. Brauronia. Pisistratus’ command in the Megar- 
ian war: Herodotus 1.59.4. Theseus’ capture ofEleusis: Plutarch, Thes. 10.3. 
Hellanicus 323 FGrH 23; Strabo 9.1.7. For Pisistratus’ exploitation of his Neleid 
ancestry, Lavelle (2005) 18—29. 

Taylor (1991). 

Said (1978). 

II. 6.120-236. See Erskine (2001) 53. 

Mackie (1996). 

Hector: Pausanias 9.18.5. Leuctra: Pausanias 3.26.5. Thalamae: Plutarch, Agis 9. 
See Erskine (2001) 113 , 124. The suggestion of an originally Greek location appears 
in Hall (1989) 22-3. 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

69 Sappho fr. 58 Lobel-Page; cf. frs. 39, 92, 98. See Kurke (1992). 

70 See, for example, Morris (1992) 101-49. 

71 Erskine (2001) 58. Herodotus (7.9B.2) recounts the Persian general Mardonius’ 
surprise at the ‘ill-advised way’ in which ‘the Hellenes are accustomed to wage 

72 For Croton and Siris, see Strabo 6.1.12, 14. 

73 The Tabula Iliaca Capitolina (849 FGrH 6b), which associates Aeneas with the foun- 
dation of Troy, purports to illustrate Stesichorus’ narrative, though some suspect it 
of being a creation of Augustan propaganda. See Malkin (1998) 172 and Erskine 
(2001) 149. 

74 See Erskine (2001) 94. 

75 Erskine (2001) 137. 

76 DeVries (2000) 348—50. 

77 For the representation of non-Greeks in the tragedies of Euripides, see Said (2002). 
For barbarians in tragedy generally, see Hall (1989). 

78 See, generally, Hall (2002) 172—89. 

79 Erskine (2001) 62—6. The pediments may date to shortly after 480 BCE, though 
this is controversial. 

80 See Castriota (1992) 33-58, 76-89. 

81 Hall (2002) 199-202. 

82 Xenophon, Hell. 3. 4. 3-4. 

83 Arrian, Anab. 1.11.7—8. 

84 See Clogg (2003) 41-2. 


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12: Ovid and Greek Myth 

A.J. Boyle 

The reason for the continuous mutation of myth ... is its cultural 

F. Graf, Greek Mythology ■' An Introduction 

T he social, cultural, and religious milieu in which the poet Ovid 
moved and wrote was complex, if not chaotic. Myth was a 
central ingredient of that complexity and chaos. The founda- 
tional myths of Aeneas and Romulus were probably current in Rome 
in the sixth century BCE, 1 and other foundational myths involving 
the Arcadian king Evander and the Greek hero Hercules followed. 
But it is from the third century BCE onwards, after the ‘invention’ 
of Roman literature, that we witness the start of the complex, multi- 
farious use of Greek myth that was to define the Ovidian treatment. 
Early Roman epic and drama and late republican poetry, architecture, 
sculpture, and wall-painting turned to Greek myth as a grammar of 
Roman experience. They used it for social, exegetic, validatory, dis- 
cursive, exemplary, referential, and (increasingly) overtly political pur- 
poses. Livius Andronicus’ Odusia, for example, seems to respond to 
a mid-third-century need for transcultural validation. Naevius, who 
introduced the historical drama, the fabula pmetexta, seems almost self- 
consciously political, highlighting aspects of Rome’s religious policy in 
Lucurgus, for example, and aetiologising and possibly galvanising politi- 
cal sentiment in Danae. He and Ennius underscored national pride (and 
that of the Julian and Aemilian families) in Bellum Poenicurn and Annales 
through their epics’ affirmation of the city’s descent from Venus. The 
second-century tragedian Accius dramatised the Atreus myth, perhaps 


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to attack the ‘tyranny’ of Tiberius Gracchus; Catullus’ epyllion, Peleus 
and Thetis (poem 64), used a concatenation of myths to examine the 
social and moral turmoil following the civil wars of the early first century 
BCE. 2 

Signally, the civil wars of the late republic elicited several mythic 
responses. Virgil expressed fervid and fragile optimism in his Golden 
Age pastoral ( Eclogue 4); Horace advocated flight to the Isles of the 
Blessed ( Epode 16) or moralised with a gigantomachy ( Odes 3.4); Varius 
presented Thyestes as an indictment of Mark Antony. Some mythic 
responses were architectural and sculptural. Most famously, the Tem- 
ple of Apollo on the Palatine, dedicated in 28 BCE, used its Portico 
of the Danaids to transform a civil war into a triumphant conquest 
of Egypt. It was a more subtle continuation of the politicisation of 
myth already evident in Julius Caesar’s Temple of Venus Genetrix (ded- 
icated 46 BCE), which housed a statue of both Caesar and Caesar’s 
mistress, Cleopatra, and in Octavian’s Temple of Divine Julius (dedi- 
cated 29 BCE), which housed a painting of Caesar’s and Rome’s divine 
ancestress, Venus. The Augustan Forum (completed 2 BCE), with its 
imbrication of Mars, Venus, Aeneas, Romulus, the Divine Julius, and 
Augustus himself, proved a decisive moment in both politicised myth 
and Ovid’s life. The iconic fusion of Augustus andjupiter on cameos and 
gems (notably on the Gemma Augustea) made explicit what Augustan 
politicised myth had implied. 3 

Much of this discursive and political use of Greek myth was made 
possible by its separation from Roman ritual, its function in Roman 
intellectual life as an instrument of thinking. By Roman intellectuals 
Greek myth was generally regarded as fabulae, a collection of fictions. 
Cicero proclaimed myth to be neither true nor plausible ( De Inven- 
tion 1.27), as did the anonymous author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium 
(1.13); Lucretius condemned the fictions of myth but used those fictions 
in his poetic argument (see, for example, De Rerum Natura 1.82-101); 
Varro objected to myth’s unworthy portrayal of the gods (Cardauns 
fragments 6— 11). More in line with myth’s appeal to Roman poets was 
the definition of myth by Aelius Theon (first century CE) in Progym- 
nasmata 3 as ‘a fictitious story which illustrates the truth.’ The defi- 
nition, of course, recalled Plato’s eikos rnuthos (‘myth resembling (the 
truth),’ Timaeus 296) and gave precise formulation to a view embedded 
in Roman poetry’s prolific use of Greek myth as a prime instrument 
of discourse. For Ovid myth was both good to think and to write 


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Ovid and Greek Myth 

Myth and Intertexts 

It has been observed that Ovid’s ‘range of mythological interest is vast.’ 4 
So too is Ovid’s range of use. The poet is fully aware of the con- 
temporary categorisation of myth as fiction. He refers to it as men- 
dacium ( Amoves 3.6.16, Fasti 6.253) and licentia (Am. 3. 12. 41); he uses 
fabula (with its connotations of unreliability) of ‘mythic’ narrative (Ars 
Amatoria 3.326, Fas. 3.738) and acknowledges the unbelievability of his 
own metamorphoses ( Tristia 2.63—4). His interest in myth is neither 
religious nor ritualistic, but poetic. And one of his primary poetic uses 
is referential. Take, for example, Heroides, an early work of Ovid and a 
self-proclaimed revolutionary one ( Ars 3.346), in which a whole col- 
lection of poems focusses on the female voice, female memory, and 
female desire, 5 expressed through the area of writing most readily open 
to elite Roman women, the letter. Mythical heroines, such as Pene- 
lope, Briseis, Phaedra, Hypsipyle, and Dido (to cite the ‘writers’ of five 
of the first seven epistles), are allowed to give their own ‘psychologi- 
cal’ version of legendary events. What results referentially is a dynamic, 
ludic interplay between Ovid’s poems and several canonical texts of the 
Greco-Roman tradition: Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Euripides’ Phaedra, 
Apollonius’ Argonautica, Virgil’s Aeneid. The referentiality itself achieves 
several effects. It locates Ovid within the Greco-Roman literary sys- 
tem. It critiques the values of the canonical texts. It underscores the gap 
between the realities implied by those texts and Ovid’s contemporary 
world. It problematises myth itself by exposing its arbitrary construction 
by canonical texts. And it does all these things with seriocomic wit. 

Consider that Homeric paradigm of wifely beauty and virtue, 
Penelope, whose undeliverable epistle to the absent Ulysses begins 
Ovid’s collection of letters. Penelope focusses on events from both the 
Iliad and the Odyssey in her catalogue of anxieties, loneliness, and depri- 
vations. But in her letter she puts to the fore her devotion to Ulysses - 

haec tua Penelope lento tibi mittit, Vlixe 

Heroides 1.1 

Your Penelope sends you this, slow Ulysses 

— and the maintenance of that devotion in the midst of great difficulties 
and pressure (83 ff); at the same time she brings herself to articulate a 
fear that Ulysses may not be showing such devotion (71—80). As the 


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reader ‘knows’ from Homer, Penelope’s anxiety that Ulysses’ ‘delay’ in 
returning home may have erotic causes, that behind the mom may lie 
amor (74-6), is not as foolish as she proclaims. This gap in ‘knowledge’ 
between the Ovidian reader and the fictive writer makes irony the 
dominant mode of Heroides 1 (as it is of the whole Heroides ) and is 
central to its questioning of the canonical mythic narrative, especially 
of Ulysses’ brand of heroism and its cost. The reader is invited to view 
that cost in terms not only of Penelope’s pain but of the un-Homeric 
and unhumorous reality of the wasting of a life. Throughout the letter 
Penelope plays the role of an elegiac pnella or ‘girl,’ pining for her man, 
only to display that what Ulysses’ absence has done is transform a girl 
into a crone. The final lines of Heroides 1 hit home — ironised by the 
reader’s ‘knowledge’ that Ulysses’ return is imminent: 

certe ego, quae fueram te discedente puella, 
protinus ut uenias, facta uidebor anus. 

Heroides 1. 115-16. 

What’s certain is that I, whom you left a girl, 

Though you come now, will seem a crone. 

The other heroines of these elegiac epistles play similar roles in rewriting 
their inherited myths. Dido, for example, in Heroides 7, subverts aspects 
of the Aeneid’s myth, making the latter seem a prejudicial construction. 6 
Penelope will later become an instrument of self-referentiality. In Tris- 
tia 1.6 (21-34), Ovid uses a comparison between her and his wife to 
allude to Heroides itself, which he asks to be able to rewrite with his 
wife placed first. 7 

Complex, often multifunctional referentiality pervades Ovid’s use 
of Greek myth throughout his oeuvre. No more so than in Meta- 
morphoses, in which the poem’s sustained reference to, and utilisa- 
tion of, central works of the mythographic tradition (Homer’s Iliad 
and Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, the ‘Hesiodic’ 
Catalogue of Women, Nicander’s Heteroioumena, Eratosthenes’ Katasteris- 
moi, Boios’ Ornithogonia, Parthenius’ Erotica Pathemata — and, of course, 
Callimachus’ Aitia) — together with the poem’s demonstrable use of 
more routine mythographic handbooks 8 — ensures that the reader sees 
the poem as in some sense or senses mythographic epic. What those 
‘senses’ are is perpetually in negotiation throughout Ovid’s innovative 
masterwork, in which one of the prime metamorphoses is of myth 
itself, 9 as the poet rewrites the master narratives not only of the Greeks 


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Ovid and Greek Myth 

(as in the Erysichthon and Iphis and Dryope myths in Books 8 and 
9 with their significant deviations from Callimachus and Nicander, or 
Achilles’ fight with Cygnus in Book 12, which expands on Homer, 10 or 
the downplaying of genealogy throughout) but of their Roman succes- 
sors. Virgil’s colloquy between Venus and Jupiter in Aeneid 1 (227-96) 
is rewritten at the end of Ovid’s epic and this time as a colloquy over 
Aeneas’ descendant ( Aeneaden , Met. 15. 8 04), Julius Caesar, and Augustus 
(Met. 15.761-842). Even more substantial is Ovid’s rewriting of Virgil’s 
own rewriting (Georgic 4. 453—527) of the Greek Orpheus myth in Meta- 
morphoses 10 and 11, where Ovid’s playful, self-consciously irreverent 
treatment transforms the fabled singer into a pompous narcissist and 
turns the song that moved hell into a rhetorician’s prosaic and verbose 
set-piece with a bizarre effect upon its audience. Virgil does not give us 
Orpheus’ song; Ovid does and it is intentionally bathetic. The Greek 
mythic prototype of all poets begins with language filled with qualifi- 
cation, exegesis, and banality, and decidedly not of the kind to make 
the Virgilian dead weep. Ominously, the Ovidian Orpheus, though he 
plucks his lyre in accompaniment to his ‘song,’ does not ‘sing’ as in 
Virgil (Geo. 4.466), but ‘says.’ 

pulsisque ad carmina neruis 
sic ait: ‘o positi sub terra numina mundi, 
in quern reccidimus, quicquid mortale creamur, 
si licet et falsi positis ambagibus oris 
uera loqui sinitis, non hue, ut opaca uiderem 
Tartara, descendi, nec uti uillosa colubris 
terna Medusaei uincirem guttura monstri: 
causa uiae est coniunx, in quam calcata uenenum 
uipera diffudit crescentesque abstulit annos. 
posse pati uolui nec me temptasse negabo: 
uicit Amor, supera deus hie bene notus in ora est; 
an sit et hie, dubito: sed et hie tamen auguror esse, 
famaque si ueteris non est mentita rapinae, 
uos quoque iunxit Amor.’ 

Metamorphoses 10.17—26 

And striking his chords for the song 
He says this: ‘O powers of the subterranean world, 
Where we fall back, all of us created mortal things, 

If it is allowed and you let me lay aside the labyrinth 
Of false speech and speak the truth, I came down here 


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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology 

Neither to view dark Tartarus nor to enchain 
The Medusan monster’s triple snake-haired necks: 

The journey’s cause is my wife, in whom a trodden viper 
Spread its poison and removed her growing years. 

I wanted the strength to endure, I’ll not deny I tried; 

Love conquered. This god is famed in the upper world; 

Whether he is here, I don’t know; but I guess he is even here, 
And, if the story of that ancient rape is not a he, 

Love also joined you two.’ 

Above is the first half of Orpheus’ song of deliverance. Ovid’s 
dead do weep; Tantalus pulls back from the disappearing water, Ixion’s 
wheel stops, vultures cease from eating Tityus’ liver, the Danaids rest 
from filling their unfillable urns, and Sisyphus sits on his stone in a 
profusion of sibilants (Met. 10.44). It is a Monty Pythonesque scene. The 
consuming passion of Virgil’s Orpheus, the dementia and furor (‘madness’) 
which make him fatefully look back, are replaced by fear of failure and 
an eagerness to view his wife (Met. 10.56). It is fitting that the effect 
of this wordy poetaster on Eurydice is to reduce her speaking ability 
(dicere) to a single word. The plangent five lines of Virgil, filled with 
bewilderment, pain, and loss (Geo. 4. 494-8), become a single and 
barely audible ‘farewell’ (uale, Met. 10.62). That is all ‘she said’: dixit 
(Met. 10.63). When Orpheus finally betakes himself to love of young 
boys, enjoying the ‘brief spring’ (breue uer) and ‘first flowers’ (pritnos 
fores ) of their youth (Met. 10.83-85), it fails to surprise. We have to 
wait for the opening of the next book before the Ciconian